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Iraq 'wants US presence extension'

Leon Panetta, President Barack Obama's choice to head the US Defence Department, has predicted that Iraq will ask the United States to keep some American troops in the country beyond the scheduled departure date at the end of the year.

In wide-ranging testimony at a Senate confirmation hearing on his nomination to replace Defence Secretary Robert Gates, the current CIA director and former Clinton White House budget chief parried questions about wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

He also dealt with worries that financial pressures will mean deep defence cuts.

Mr Panetta said Muammar Gaddafi's rule in Libya is weakening, and Pakistan is a frustrating but crucial ally against terrorists.

He offered few specifics, however, on how many of the 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan should be withdrawn beginning in July. He concurred with Mr Obama's promise of a significant drawdown but also said the decision should be "conditions-based".

After the latest violence in Iraq, Mr Panetta said he expected Baghdad to ask for US troops to stay beyond their scheduled December 31 departure. Currently about 47,000 US troops are in Iraq, none in a declared combat role.

"I think it's clear to me that Iraq is considering the possibility of making a request for some kind of presence to remain there," Mr Panetta said.

He told the Senate Armed Services Committee that there are about 1,000 al Qaida insurgents in Iraq and the situation is fragile. "I believe that we should take whatever steps are necessary to make sure that we protect whatever progress we've made there," he said.

Eight years after the American invasion to remove Saddam Hussein, the United States has lost more than 4,400 lives in Iraq, with more than 32,000 wounded. The war has cost hundreds of billions of dollars.

Mr Obama has said he intends to carry out the current US-Iraq agreement, worked out in 2008 before he became commander in chief. Mr Gates, who also served as defence secretary under President George W Bush, Mr Obama's predecessor, has said repeatedly that he hopes Iraq asks for a continued US presence beyond December 31.


From Belfast Telegraph