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U.S. envoy: Troop extension in Iraq is possible

U.S. soldiers fold the flag as they prepare to hand over their base to Iraqi forces in Iraq's southern province of Basra on June 22. (ATEF HASSAN/REUTERS)

The United States remains open to keeping thousands of troops in Iraq beyond the end of the year if asked, but will require Iraqi forces to provide them with greater security, the U.S. envoy to Iraq said Saturday.

Ambassador James F. Jeffrey told reporters at a roundtable in the capital that the Obama administration would consider a request to keep some of the roughly 46,000 U.S. troops here, but added, “We do need the Iraqi forces to help us secure our troops and, frankly, to secure themselves.”

Most U.S. forces are scheduled to leave by year’s end as part of a three-year security agreement, while about 17,000 U.S. diplomats and private contractors stay on.

But Iraq’s top political leaders are expected to meet again this week to consider asking the United States to keep forces here into next year. Jeffrey would not say Saturday how many troops would be likely to remain.

His comments followed the deaths of 15 U.S. troops in June, the bloodiest month for the U.S. military here in two years. Military and diplomatic officials blame Iraqi Shiite insurgent groups for the attacks, saying they have obtained deadlier weapons from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and other Iranian sources.

Iraqi soldiers, policemen and Kurdish Peshmerga troops of the Golden Lion forces, a mixed squad put together to secure disputed areas where people of different ethnicities reside in the north of the Iraqi capital, stand at attention during a parade in Kirkuk. (STRINGER/IRAQ/REUTERS)

Warning of continued instability, Jeffrey said insurgent groups would be carrying out attacks across the country regardless of the U.S. military’s presence.

“If we weren’t around, they’d go after somebody else,” he said. “We’re target number one right now, but they’ll find other targets. This is a problem that Iraq has to deal with.”

Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.

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