BAGHDAD // Iraq's prime minister said yesterday he might ask thousands of American troops to remain in the country next year provided that a solid majority of the main political parties back the request.
Nouri al Maliki told reporters he will meet other Iraqi political leaders by the end of this month to gauge support for having US troops stay beyond a December withdrawal deadline.
The Obama administration has said it wants to know within weeks whether Baghdad will seek to continue more than eight years of a heavy US military presence in Iraq.
Sunni and Kurdish leaders generally want US troops to remain to help the nation become more stable and continue training security forces that are still unprepared to defend their borders. But hardline Shiites who helped Mr al Maliki secure a second term in office last year have threatened to revolt if American soldiers remain.
"I will bring the leaders of the political blocs together. If they say yes, I will agree and if they say no, I will reject it," Mr al Maliki, a Shiite, said during a 90-minute news conference at his office in the fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad.
He refused to say whether he personally supports keeping troops in Iraq.
"Whole countries have failed to do this, and you want to make me say yes or no before I gather the national consensus?" Mr al Maliki retorted when directly asked. "I will not say it."
Mr al Maliki said at least 70 per cent of leaders representing the major Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish political parties must support the continued US military presence before he will ask the White House for the troops to remain.
There are currently about 46,000 US troops in Iraq, down from a peak of near 170,000 in August 2007 at the height of sectarian fighting between Sunni and Shiites that killed dozens of people daily.
Mr al Maliki said American leaders have asked Baghdad for an answer before August so they can start withdrawing soldiers and shutting down dozens of bases scattered across the country.
The December 31 deadline was set under a 2008 security agreement between Washington and Baghdad. A new agreement would have to be reached for troops to remain in 2012, Mr al Maliki said, although the White House and Pentagon have signaled they are open to that. However, it took months for both sides to hammer out the original pact, and time is running out this year for a new one to be negotiated.