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Iraq PM hints at longer US role

Iraqi PM Nouri Maliki has hinted that US forces could stay in Iraq beyond the current deadline of 2011.

In a speech at a Washington think tank, he reiterated that the troop presence is due to end on 31 December 2011, under a bilateral agreement.

"Nevertheless, if the Iraqi forces required further training and further support, we shall examine this then at that time," he said.

US troops pulled out of Iraqi cities and towns at the end of June.

The move was seen as a major step in the transfer of security control to government forces in Iraq, which has been plagued by sectarian strife since the 2003 US-led invasion.

Mr Maliki was speaking at the US Institute of Peace, during a four-day visit to the country.

On Wednesday, the Iraqi leader met US President Barack Obama, who said the US would stick to the withdrawal deadline.

Mr Obama, who pledged during his election campaign to pull US troops out of Iraq, warned there would be violence ahead, but said it would ultimately fail.

Later on Thursday, Mr Maliki later laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arlington National Cemetery, in honour of the US soldiers who have died in Iraq.

He observed a minute's silence during a military ceremony at the site.
There has been a marked drop in violence in Iraq in recent months, though attacks increased in June in the run-up to the American pull-back.

Iraqi troops now take the lead security role in Iraq's urban areas, and analysts say the latest attacks are a sign that insurgents remain intent on destabilising the country.

Mr Maliki said on Wednesday that Iraq's armed forces were now "highly capable" and were already successfully policing towns and cities.

Mr Maliki faces a general election in Iraq in January in which he is staking his reputation on being the man who oversaw the transfer of military control from US to Iraqi hands.

But the BBC's Gabriel Gatehouse in Baghdad says that, behind the optimistic talk about withdrawal, reduced violence and the increased capabilities of Iraqi security forces, lie two facts - there are still around 130,000 American troops inside Iraq, and fatal attacks remain an everyday occurrence.

The question remains how to extract American forces from Iraq by the end of 2011 without the security situation getting any worse, our correspondent says.

Iraq's Shia, Sunni Arab and Kurdish groups are divided on a number of issues, including how to share Iraq's oil wealth, the authority of the central government, and political power-sharing.

None of this will be easy to resolve, our correspondent says, with the various parties jostling for position ahead of elections in January.

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