BAGHDAD — The Obama administration would keep U.S. troops in Iraq beyond the agreed final withdrawal date of Dec. 31, 2011, if the Iraqi government wanted them, but the Iraqis need to decide "pretty quickly" in order for the Pentagon to accommodate the extension, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday during what he said probably is his final visit to this war-torn country.
Whether to negotiate an extended U.S. military presence is up to the Iraqis, he said, adding that he thought an extension might make sense.
"We are willing to have a presence beyond (2011), but we've got a lot of commitments," he said, not only in Afghanistan and Libya but also in Japan, where he said 19 U.S. Navy ships and about 18,000 U.S. military personnel are assisting in earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor relief efforts.
"So if folks here are going to want us to have a presence, we're going to need to get on with it pretty quickly in terms of our planning," he added. "I think there is interest in having a continuing presence. The politics are such that we'll just have to wait and see because the initiative ultimately has to come from the Iraqis."
The U.S. now has about 47,000 troops in Iraq, and they will begin leaving in large numbers in late summer or early fall. The U.S. led an invasion in March 2003 that toppled the government of President Saddam Hussein a month later, but an insurgency soon set in and the U.S. got mired in a conflict that has lasted far longer — and cost far more American and Iraqi lives — than Washington had anticipated.
Gates also said civil unrest in the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, with majority Shiite Muslims pushing for an end to rule by the minority Sunnis, has created tensions in Iraq, whose Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is concerned about Bahrain's crackdown on Shiites.
Gates said he expected to discuss this subject with al-Maliki in private meetings later Thursday.
Under blue skies and a bright sun at a U.S. base just outside the Iraqi capital, Gates told a group of soldiers that he worries that a potential shutdown of the U.S. federal government will delay issuance of their paychecks. He assured them that they eventually would get full pay, but there could be a delay if Democrats and Republicans in Washington are unable to reach a budget deal this week.
"When I start to think of the inconvenience that it's going to cause these kids (soldiers) and a lot of their families, even a half paycheck delayed can be a problem for them," Gates told reporters after fielding several questions from the assembled soldiers. The first question posed to him was by a soldier asking about the ramifications for military members and their families of the budget crisis back home.
Gates assured them, "You will be paid," then added that it might take a while, depending on the length of the political impasse in Washington.
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