BAGHDAD — The White House is offering to keep up to 10,000 troops in Iraq next year, U.S. officials say, despite opposition from many Iraqis and key Democratic Party allies who demand that President Barack Obama bring home the American military as promised.
Any extension of the military's presence, however, depends on a formal request from Baghdad — which must weigh questions about the readiness of Iraqi security forces against fears of renewed militant attacks and unrest if U.S. soldiers stay beyond the December pullout deadline.
Iraq is not expected to decide until September at the earliest when the 46,000 U.S. forces left in the country had hoped to start heading home.
Already, though, the White House has worked out options to keep between 8,500 and 10,000 active-duty troops to continue training Iraqi security forces during 2012, according to senior Obama administration and U.S. military officials in interviews with The Associated Press. The figures also were noted by foreign diplomats in Baghdad briefed on the issue.
All spoke on condition of anonymity to frankly discuss the sensitive matter during interviews over the past two weeks.
White House spokesman Jay Carney on Tuesday said the Pentagon is still planning for all U.S. troops to withdraw by year's end, noting that time is running out for Iraq's government to ask them to stay.
"We have said for a long time now if the Iraqi government asks us to maintain some level of troops beyond that end of the year deadline, we would consider it," Carney told reporters in Washington.
He appeared to back off that possibility, however, adding: "That doesn't necessarily mean we would do it. We would just consider it. And I really don't have any more information on that possible outcome because, again, we haven't even gotten a request."
Any change in the U.S. military withdrawal timetable in Iraq — after more than eight years and more than 4,450 U.S. military deaths — could open up difficult political confrontations for Obama as pressure builds to close out the Iraq mission and stick to pledges to draw down troops in Afghanistan.
The Senate's top Democrat, Sen. Harry Reid, told the AP that the high cost of keeping U.S. troops in Iraq — given a mounting U.S. debt crisis and Iraq's fledgling security gains — is no longer necessary.
Reid, the Senate majority leader, estimated nearly $1 trillion has been spent in Iraq since the U.S. invaded in 2003, including $50 billion this year alone.
"As Iraq becomes increasingly capable, it is time for our own troops to return home by the end of the year and for these precious resources to be directed elsewhere," Reid, Democrat of Nevada, said in the statement. "There is no question that the United States must continue to provide support for the Iraqis as they progress, but now is the time for our military mission to come to a close."
Reid was responding to a request for comment after 15 U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq in June, mostly by Shiite militias, in the deadliest month for the American military here in two years. It was the first public statement by a top party leader to oppose Obama's policy in Iraq.