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Iraq may ask U.S. troops to stay longer

WASHINGTON -- Leon Panetta, the likely next Pentagon chief, predicted yesterday that Iraq will ask the United States to maintain a presence in that country beyond the end of this year, when American troops are currently scheduled to leave.

"It's clear to me Iraq is considering some kind of presence" to remain in the country, contingent on what Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki requests, Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "I have every confidence that a request like that will be forthcoming."

Panetta said there are still about 1,000 al-Qaida insurgents in Iraq, and keeping some troops to support security forces there is a good idea.

On a glide path to confirmation, Panetta would replace Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is retiring June 30 after 4 1/2 years in the Bush and Obama administrations. Gates has said he hopes Baghdad asks U.S. troops to stay beyond their scheduled Dec. 31 departure to preserve the relative peace.

There currently are about 47,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, none in a declared combat role. They are slated to leave under an agreement worked out in 2008 shortly before President Barack Obama entered the White House. Obama has repeatedly said he intends to carry out the current agreement.

Panetta, the current CIA director, received effusive accolades and persistent questions from senators concerned about the initial drawdown of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in July, the stalemate in the Libyan civil war and fiscal pressures on the defense budget. Panetta has been widely praised for the CIA's role in the raid and killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

The next defense secretary will oversee the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, and Panetta said the cut should be based on conditions in the country. Obama, in consultation with Gates and Gen. David Petraeus, will decide how many of the 100,000 U.S. troops he should withdraw.

Panetta said opposition forces in Libya have made gains in the east and west, and Moammar Gadhafi's regime is weakening. He said rebel leaders could maintain continuity in the current if the current ruler is ousted.

Panetta said the NATO military operation, strong economic sanctions, and the enforcement of the no-fly zone are putting tremendous pressure on Gadhafi, and that the pressure must continue. If it does, he said he believes Gadhafi will ultimately step down.

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