Admiral Mike Mullen
Admiral Mike Mullen, US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, addresses a press conference at the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) headquarters in Kabul on July 2010. Iraq must decide soon if it wants US troops to stay on beyond a year-end deadline for their withdrawal, the top American military officer said during a visit on Monday. © Massoud Hossaini - AFP/File
Admiral Mike Mullen
Prashant Rao, AFP
Last updated: August 2, 2011

Top US officer presses Iraq for troop decision

Iraq must decide soon if it wants US troops to stay on beyond a year-end deadline for their withdrawal, the top American military officer said during a surprise visit on Monday.

Admiral Mike Mullen, outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad after landing at a US base on the outskirts of the northern city of Mosul.

"The point is we're at a deadline, and we need an answer," Mullen told accompanying journalists, according to the Pentagon.

Around 47,000 US soldiers are currently stationed in Iraq, all of who must withdraw by the end of the year under the terms of a security pact signed by Washington and Baghdad.

US officials have pressed their Iraqi counterparts to decide quickly whether they want any American military presence beyond that date, including during a visit in July by Defence Secretary Leon Panetta.

Proposals for a training mission have been gaining traction among Iraqi leaders but no agreement has yet been reached.

Maliki said during his meeting with Mullen that he hoped Iraqi political leaders would reach a decision during a meeting, previously delayed multiple times, now set for Tuesday.

Politicians here have already missed a self-imposed July 23 deadline to reach a decision, and political progress is rarely made during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which began on Monday in Iraq.

In his meeting with Mullen, Maliki pressed for continuous cooperation between the two countries regardless of the outcome of Tuesday's meeting of Iraqi political leaders.

"There should be continuous weapons cooperation between Baghdad and Washington, especially on the subject of air defence, and of meeting Iraq's urgent needs for these kinds of systems," Maliki said, his office reported.

Maliki said on Saturday that Iraq restarted talks with the US to purchase 36 American F-16 fighter jets, double the figure that had originally been mooted.

Iraq and the US had been close to a final agreement to purchase the F-16s earlier this year, but nationwide protests forced the Baghdad government to divert funds earmarked for the jets to programmes to help the poor.

Mullen also met with General Lloyd Austin, commander of US forces in Iraq, and was due to hold talks with Talabani, the Pentagon said.

US and Iraqi military officials have often assessed Iraq's security forces to be capable of maintaining internal security, but deemed the country as lacking in capacity to defend its borders, air space and territorial waters.

Mullen arrived in Iraq after a two-day trip to Afghanistan, much of which was spent visiting troops before he is due to step down in October. He was travelling with comedian Jon Stewart, former NBA star Karl Malone and magician David Blaine.

His visit comes days after the US Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, Stuart Bowen, warned in a report that the country was less safe than one year ago and security deteriorating.

"Iraq remains an extraordinarily dangerous place to work," Bowen said in his report published on Saturday. "It is less safe, in my judgment, than 12 months ago."

Figures released on Monday showed the number of Iraqis killed as a result of violence in July declined from the previous month but still marked the second-highest such toll for 2011.

A total of 259 Iraqis -- 159 civilians, 56 policemen and 44 soldiers -- died in attacks last month.

Five American soldiers also died in July, bringing the overall number of US troops to have died in Iraq since the 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein to 4,474, according to data compiled by independent website

June was the deadliest month for US forces in Iraq since 2009, with 14 soldiers killed.

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