WASHINGTON // The Obama administration was preparing to begin talks with Iraq on defining a long-term defence relationship that may include expanded US training help, according to the defence secretary's chief policy aide.
Michele Flournoy, who is leaving her Pentagon post on Friday to return to private life, said that the administration is open to Iraqi suggestions about the scope and depth of defence ties.
"One of the things we're looking forward to doing is sitting down with the Iraqis in the coming month or two to start thinking about how they want to work with" the US military to develop a programme of exercises, training and other forms of security cooperation, Ms Flournoy said.
The US military completed its withdrawal from Iraq in December after nearly nine years of war. Both sides had considered keeping at least several thousand US troops there to provide comprehensive field training for Iraqi security forces, but they failed to strike a deal before the expiration of a 2008 agreement that required all American troops to leave.
As a result, training is limited to a group of American service members and contractors in Baghdad who will help Iraqis learn to operate newly acquired weapons systems. They are part of the Office of Security Cooperation, based in the US Embassy in Baghdad and headed by Army Lieutenant General Robert Caslen.
Additional and more comprehensive training is a major issue because Iraq's army and police are mainly equipped and trained to counter an internal insurgency, rather than deter and defend against external threats.
Iraq has seen an upswing in violence since the last US troop left, but senior US officials have remained in touch in hopes of nudging the Iraqis towards a political accommodation that can avert a slide into civil war.
The US vice president, Joe Biden, spoke by phone on Saturday with Osama Nujaifi, the speaker of the Council of Representatives. And Mr Biden spoke on Friday with a key opposition figure, Ayad Allawi, a former interim prime minister and a secular Shiite leader of the Iraqiyya political bloc. Mr Allawi has said Iraq needs to replace its prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, or hold new elections to prevent the country from fracturing along sectarian lines.
In a positive sign, Iraq's Sunni leaders announced on Sunday that they will end their boycott of parliament. That may have paved the way for the political leadership to hold a national conference led by President Jalal Talabani to seek reconciliation and to end a sectarian political crisis.
George Little, the Pentagon press secretary, said on Sunday that the defence secretary, Leon Panetta, remained optimistic about the outlook in Iraq despite worsening violence.
US officials have said they aim to establish broad defence ties to Iraq, similar to American relationships with other nations in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain.