BASRA, Iraq - The Obama administration pushed back Wednesday on reports it has decided to keep a few thousand troops in Iraq next year - a number that will do little to ease security concerns but may be too big for White House advisers who are worried about the slumping U.S. economy and the president's re-election chances.
In Washington, new Joint Chiefs chairman Army Gen. Martin Dempsey and Undersecretary of State nominee Wendy Sherman separately said there has been no decision on how many troops might stay.
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James F. Jeffrey went a step further, soundly dismissing as false news reports that about 3,000 troops would remain in Iraq beyond the final Dec. 31 withdrawal deadline.
He said that figure has not been part of ongoing discussions in Baghdad, where both governments have been weighing whether as many as 10,000 U.S. forces should stay.
"That number has no official status or credibility," Jeffrey told The Associated Press in informal comments after a Wednesday ceremony in the southern Iraqi port city of Basra, where the U.S. Army's 25th Infantry Division replaced several thousand troops who are headed home.
Many Iraqi officials were alarmed by the 3,000 figure, which they privately consider not nearly enough troops. It was unclear whether U.S. officials in Washington floated that number to push Baghdad into making a quick decision.
Iraqi leaders are reluctant to issue a formal invitation for U.S. forces to stay, fearing a political backlash among their own followers, including some who have threatened widespread violence and attacks on the troops if they do not leave.
Shiite militias have stepped up attacks on U.S. soldiers and bases in Iraq this year. On Wednesday, two Katyusha rockets hit Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, where the American Embassy and Iraqi government offices are located.
Ramzy Mardini, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, said keeping 3,000 troops is "hardly enough to execute any meaningful military mission or secure any long-term political interests going forward."
Jeffrey took a swipe at policy advisers in Washington, suggesting an ongoing debate within the administration over the U.S. military's future here with only four months to go before troops must leave.
"I think Washington, when it wakes up, will have really great guidance and insight as to what's going on here," the ambassador said.
There are currently about 45,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. A 2008 security agreement between Washington and Baghdad requires all of them to leave Iraq by the end of the year. A decision to keep U.S. troops here into 2012 would require the approval of both governments, though the CIA and State Department security contractors will continue to operate in the country regardless.
U.S. military officials and diplomats in Baghdad have long feared that a full troop withdrawal this year could elevate neighboring Iran's interests over Iraq's still unstable government and threaten its shaky security.
But keeping troops in Iraq would also violate a promise President Barack Obama made shortly after taking office to bring home all U.S. forces by the end of 2011.
And White House officials, with an eye on Obama's re-election, have pointed to the high costs of keeping troops in Iraq amid the sagging economy.
It could cost as much as $500 million annually for every 1,000 troops to stay in Iraq next year, according to a recent estimate by a senior U.S. military official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the issue candidly.
Asked whether costs would be a factor in the troops decision, White House spokesman Jay Carney said limited resources generally are considered "with every consideration we make."
"But the answer is, we will make decisions based on what is the best for the United States, best for our national security interests and best for having the most effective relationship with Iraq going forward," he said.
Many Iraqi officials privately say they want American troops to continue training the nation's security forces for months, if not years, to come. The president of Iraq's northern Kurdish region this week pleaded for U.S. forces to stay to ward off threats of renewed sectarian violence.
Many Iraqis - Sunnis and Shiites - share that fear.
"We need to have U.S. soldiers continue to train our forces until they get more experience," Khudhair al-Amara, a tribal sheik in Baghdad, said Wednesday. "There are still some small issues in cities between groups and I don't believe the Iraq forces have the ability to protect us."
Violence has dropped dramatically in Iraq over the last few years, but deadly attacks still happen nearly every day. A bomb hidden in a bag near a clothing store in a Sunni neighborhood in northern Baghdad killed one passer-by Wednesday and wounded six others, according to police and hospital officials.
Once in a while, attacks can be devastating. On Aug. 15, a relentless barrage of bombings killed 63 people in the most sweeping and coordinated attack Iraq had seen in over a year, striking 17 cities from northern Sunni areas to the southern Shiite heartland. The surprising scope and sophistication of the bloodbath suggested that al-Qaida remains resilient in Iraq despite recent signs of weakness.
Some Republicans in Congress also are advocating a much larger U.S. military presence in Iraq beyond 2011. Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said keeping as few as 3,000 troops in Iraq falls far short of what U.S. military commanders have told him is needed to help develop its air defenses and gaps in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
"It's in America's national security interest not to lose Iraq after the sacrifice of some 4,500 brave young Americans," McCain said Wednesday on the Senate floor. "And the consequences of failure are obvious."