Gates: U.S. would consider staying in Iraq beyond 2011

If Iraqi officials ask American troops to stay in the country beyond next year's deadline for withdrawal, the United States will be open to discussing the idea, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday.

"We'll stand by," Gates told reporters while traveling in Malaysia. "That initiative clearly needs to come from the Iraqis; we are open to discussing it."

Gates urged Iraq's political groups to reconcile after months of deadlock since the March 7 parliamentary election failed to produce a clear winner. Any request to extend the U.S. military presence in Iraq would have to come from a functioning Iraqi government, Gates said, according to the Associated Press.

Leaders of Iraq's major political blocs met for the first time Monday, but the first session of three scheduled days of talks did not lead to a breakthrough in forming a government, AP reported. The contest for supremacy pits the Iranian-favored coalition of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki against anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the Sunni-backed secular coalition led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who received the most votes in the inconclusive elections. Allawi's coalition won 91 seats in the election, compared with 89 for Maliki's bloc; neither side won a majority of seats needed to govern.

Car bombings in three Shiite cities occurred Tuesday, the third series of apparently coordinated attacks since last week. More than a dozen coordinated car bombs exploded in Baghdad on November 2, killing at least 60 people and injured more than 300 in the deadliest attacks in Iraq since the summer.

The surge of violence has called into question the ability of Iraqi security forces to protect the capital against sectarian violence ahead of the December 31, 2011 deadline for complete withdrawal of U.S. forces. But the U.S. deputy commanding general for operations for Iraq expressed confidence Monday that Iraq's security forces, now numbering 650,000 troops, are "fully responsible" for maintaining the security environment today.

Lt. Gen. Robert Cone, speaking to reporters in Washington by video link from Iraq, called the Iraqi forces a "capable counterinsurgency force."

Cone added that the Iraqis ran a national after-action review on Saturday at the Iraqi defense ministry to achieve a "very logical and rational assessment" of the violence over the last two weeks. He said the security forces were "quite critical of their own performance, in a healthy way."

While all final decisions for troop withdrawal would be left up to political negotiations, meeting the timeline for a complete pullout by 2012 is essential to proving U.S. credibility in the region, Cone said. "Right now, we have a security agreement that says we will be out of here by January 1, 2012.... We will be at zero [forces here]."

"From my perspective, the credibility that we get by making an agreement with another nation and honoring it is self-enforcing," he said.

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