BAGHDAD -- Even with the burdens of combat in Afghanistan and unrest in the Arab world, the United States would keep American troops in Iraq beyond the agreed 2011 final withdrawal date if Iraq's government asked for extra help, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said yesterday.

His comments give weight to an idea that is politically sensitive in both nations and which Iraq officially rejects.

During what he said would probably be his final visit to Iraq as Pentagon chief, Gates urged the fractious Iraqi government to decide "pretty quickly" whether it wants to extend the U.S. presence beyond Dec. 31 to enable continued training of its security forces. Gates shares the view of many in the U.S. military that a longer U.S. stay would be useful in ensuring that Iraq's security and political gains do not unravel, but publicly he has insisted that the decision is Iraq's.

"We are willing to have a presence beyond (2011), but we've got a lot of commitments," Gates said during a question-and-answer session with troops at a U.S. military compound on the outskirts of Baghdad. He cited U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Libya and noted that few people realize that 19 U.S. Navy ships and about 18,000 U.S. military personnel are assisting in earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor relief efforts in Japan.

"So if folks here are going to want us to have a presence, we're going to need to get on with it pretty quickly in terms of our planning," he added. "I think there is interest in having a continuing presence. The politics are such that we'll just have to wait and see because the initiative ultimately has to come from the Iraqis."

The American military presence is broadly unpopular in Iraq, even though many Iraqis say they are glad that the U.S.-led war toppled dictator Saddam Hussein. Many Iraqis say the visible presence of U.S. forces is a slight to their national pride, and unnecessary eight years after the start of the war.

Iraq's perpetually squabbling politicians are wary of suggesting that the country cannot stand on its own, for fear that rivals could exploit such a statement.

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