Prime minister says Iraqi troops can take over

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, left, meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, right, in Baghdad, Iraq, April 21, 2011. AP

BAGHDAD - Iraq's prime minister has told the top U.S. military officer that Iraqi forces are able to maintain security in their own country, as discussions intensify over whether to keep any U.S. forces in Iraq past this year.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made the remark during a late Thursday meeting with Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff.

Mullen's visit comes as U.S. and Iraqi officials are trying to decide what, if any, U.S. troop presence should remain in Iraq after the end of this year.

An agreement between both countries stipulates that all American forces are to leave by Dec. 31.

"The military and the security forces have become able to take the responsibility, to maintain the security and to work with professionalism and patriotism. We will continue to enhance our combat abilities and capabilities while equipping (forces) with the latest weapons and equipment," the premier told Mullen, according to a statement released on the prime minister's website.

U.S. officials have said repeatedly that they would consider having American forces in Iraq past the year-end date but only if the Iraqis asked. Privately, many Iraqi officials say they are worried about what will happen in Iraq after the U.S. withdrawals but publicly they maintain that all American forces will leave as scheduled.

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Asking American forces to stay past 2011 would be politically risky for al-Maliki, whose closest allies in government are the virulently anti-American followers of Muqtada al-Sadr. The Shiite cleric, who spends much of his time in neighboring Iran, has threatened violence if American troops stay in Iraq.

But military officials say Iraq still needs assistance protecting its airspace and with intelligence gathering.

For Iraqis, the question of Americans staying past 2011 has been a sore issue.

About 5,000 protesters defied a ban on Friday rallies and gathered in the northern city of Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, to demand there be no extensions to U.S. troop presence. Hundreds also converged from nearby Sunni provinces to join a sit-in at al-Ahrar square, which has been going on since April 9, against American troops.

And in Baghdad, dozens of Iraqis protested in Tahrir Square demanding the complete withdrawal of the American forces from Iraq, and calling for an end to rampant corruption and for the release of prisoners.

In his statement, al-Maliki emphasized that he would like to continue cooperation with the U.S. in the fields of training and armaments.

Mullen's visit comes on the heels of earlier trips by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Speaker of the House John Boehner and Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Martin Dempsey.

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