BAGHDAD — Iraq’s prime minister indicated Wednesday that he might ask some U.S. troops to stay in the country beyond a year-end deadline if most of Iraq’s main political blocs support such a decision.
Nouri al-Maliki, who has been under pressure from the United States to decide within weeks on a lasting U.S. military presence, said he would call together leaders from the main blocs by the end of this month to begin hashing out a response.
“Let us hear the voice of the citizen, the politicians, civil society organizations and probably even the governors’ opinion,” Maliki said. “After having the agreement of the majority, we will submit it to the parliament.”
The prime minister went a step further than an earlier pledge to merely discuss the matter with lawmakers, saying that the United States needs a decision by August, when its military planners have said the withdrawal will switch into high gear. Still, his remarks left the timetable for a final decision unclear, given the press of domestic issues facing parliament in coming months.
Iraqi observers attributed Maliki’s caution to political calculations, saying that if he is seen as bowing to U.S. pressure to let troops stay, he will face a backlash from the hard-line Shiites whose support last year was critical to his ability to cobble together a governing coalition.
By suggesting that he will abide by a consensus decision, observers said, he has begun to move himself out of the cross hairs as the sole decision maker on the issue.
Maliki was particularly vague Wednesday about what he would consider “majority” support for keeping a U.S. troop presence, saying at one point, “When the consensus reaches 70, 80 or 90 percent, then I call this consensus.”
Acknowledging opposition from the anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, he also said that if such a supermajority voted to extend the stay of U.S. troops, it would be patriotic for opponents to go along with it.
In a speech this week in Qatar, Sadr blamed the presence of U.S. troops not only for continued strife in Iraq but also for the problems in Bahrain and elsewhere in the region.
Sadr has warned that any agreement to keep U.S. troops in the country would be grounds for renewing armed resistance to American and Iraqi forces. Some Iraqi politicians suggested that Maliki’s remarks could prompt Sadr to bring his anti-American message to the streets in coming weeks in attempts to sway public opinion.
Despite Sadrists’ vehement opposition, Kurdish, Sunni and some secular Shiite lawmakers have expressed concern that Iraq will not be able to secure its borders or defend its airspace after U.S. military forces leave.
But a deep sense of national pride and concern that a U.S. military extension could be loosely defined and open-ended have made most Iraqi lawmakers hesitant to express support for giving foreign troops continued immunity to operate in the country.
In a wide-ranging news conference at his residence Wednesday, Maliki never offered his personal opinion about whether U.S. troops should stay.
Asked by an Iraqi journalist whether he was with the United States or against it on the issue of an extension, Maliki laughed. Powerful nations had repeatedly pressed him for an answer to that question, he said.
“I will not say it.”
Special correspondent Asaad Majeed contributed to this report.