Iraq expected to request U.S. troops stay: Panetta

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    (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's pick to lead the Pentagon said on Thursday he expected Iraq to eventually ask Washington to keep U.S. troops in the country beyond an end-2011 deadline for their withdrawal.

    When it does, the United States should say "yes," outgoing CIA chief Leon Panetta told a Senate committee weighing his nomination to become the next secretary of defense.

    "It's clear to me that Iraq is considering the possibility of making a request for some kind of (troop) presence to remain there," Panetta said.

    He said that he had "every confidence" the request would be "forthcoming at some point."

    Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shi'ite-led coalition government is debating the sensitive question of whether to ask Washington to keep some of the 47,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq, if only in a training and advisory role.

    But at least one group in Maliki's coalition, the Sadr block led by anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, fiercely opposes any U.S. troops staying on past 2011, the date set for all U.S. troops to leave the country under a bilateral security pact.

    U.S. and Iraqi military commanders are concerned Iraq's armed forces may not be fully ready to defend the country alone, with Washington pointing to gaps in Iraqi air defense, intelligence fusion, logistics and more.

    Violence is down considerably since the height of the Iraq war but security remains precarious. Five U.S. service members were killed in a rocket attack in Iraq on Monday, the worst single toll for U.S. forces there for at least two years.

    Panetta said he estimated that there were 1,000 al Qaeda still in Iraq.

    "It, too, continues to be a fragile situation. And I believe that we should take whatever steps are necessary to make sure that we protect whatever progress we've made there," he said.

    Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates has publicly suggested that Iran was another reason to keep U.S. forces in Iraq.

    Washington has accused Iran of supporting Shi'ite militias, a charge Tehran denies, and Iraqi Sunnis view Iran's intentions in Iraq with enormous suspicion.

    Gates said last month that a continued U.S. military presence in Iraq would be "reassuring" to Gulf states. He added it would not be reassuring to neighboring Iran and "that's a good thing."

    (Editing by Jackie Frank)
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