Washington: Iraq will face problems in everything from protecting its airspace to using intelligence unless it alters plans to send all US troops home this year, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said on Wednesday.
President Barack Obama campaigned to end the Iraq war responsibly, upholding an agreement with Iraq signed under the Bush administration to withdraw all US forces by the end of 2011.
But the Pentagon has long said Washington would consider any Iraqi request for additional troops to stay beyond the 150 or so that will staff a security cooperation office. Gates appeared to go further on Wednesday, saying it would be in the US interest to do so.
"There is certainly on our part an interest in having an additional presence," Gates told a congressional hearing, without saying how many more US forces he was talking about.
"And the truth of the matter is, the Iraqis are going to have some problems that they are going to have to deal with if we are not there in some numbers."
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has said he will not renegotiate the security pact. But he has also held open the possibility the Iraqi parliament might approve some sort of extended presence if needed.
There are now fewer than 50,000 US troops in Iraq, compared with a peak of 170,000.
Iraq has built up sizable new ground forces, under US tutelage, but its fledgling air force will not be ready to defend the country until after it gets its first fighter jets -- a sale which has now been delayed.
Its military also continues to struggle against a stubborn insurgency, while Kurd-Arab tensions remain unresolved, leading to speculation that Maliki may have little choice but to ask the US military -- particularly the Air Force -- to stay on.
"They will not be able to do the kind of job in intelligence fusion, they won`t be able to protect their own air space," Gates told the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee. "They will have problems with logistics and maintenance."
He was asked by Duncan Hunter, a Republican lawmaker, how the United States expected to maintain its gains in Iraq if it reduced its military presence to below levels in Egypt, where the Pentagon estimates there are about 625 US troops.
"Do you think that that represents the correct approach for this country, after the blood and treasure that we`ve spent in Iraq?" Hunter asked.
"It`s their country," said Gates, a holdover from the administration of George W Bush who plans to step down this year.
"It`s a sovereign country. This is the agreement that was signed by President Bush and the Iraqi government, and we will abide by the agreement, unless the Iraqis ask us to have additional people there."