An Iraqi soldier stands guard outside the office of the Al Arabiya television station after a suicide bomber driving a minibus struck in Baghdad. Image Credit: AP

Baghdad: As the US winds up combat operations in Iraq this month, a gap is widening between the militaries of both countries and their political masters over whether American soldiers should stay beyond the 2011 deadline for a complete US troop withdrawal.

A security agreement between the two nations calls for all US troops to leave Iraq by the end of 2011. By September 1, only 50,000 American soldiers will remain in the country, their combat authority strictly curtailed in the largest step to date toward the 2011 deadline.

Mindful of their campaign promises, both Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki and aides to President Barack Obama this week declared that this summer's withdrawal indeed marks the beginning of the end of US troops in Iraq.

Not so fast, said Gen. Babaker Shawkat Zebari, the Kurd who commands Iraq's military, warning again Wednesday that his army may not be ready to defend the nation until 2020.

"If it was in my hands, from the military perspective of the job, I would have asked them to keep some American bases in the country" until then, he told AP.

US troop withdrawal

The White House defiantly maintained Wednesday that all troops, save those working with the US Embassy and other diplomatic outposts, will be out of Iraq by the end of next year, just as Obama gears up for the 2012 presidential election campaign.

But within hours, while talking to Pentagon reporters en route to a military ceremony in Tampa, Florida, Defence Secretary Robert Gates left open the door that troops could stay in Iraq as long as Baghdad asks for them.

"We have an agreement with the Iraqis that both governments have agreed to that we will be out of Iraq at the end of 2011," Gates said. "If a new government is formed there and they want to talk about beyond 2011, we're obviously open to that discussion."

Bombings continue almost daily in Baghdad and around the rest of Iraq, a grim reality illustrated by the fact that the number of civilians killed by insurgents in July was the highest in two years.

Though violence is far lower than it was between 2005 and 2007, when revenge attacks brought the country to the edge of civil war, Iraq is far from secure.

Aid still needed

Even Al Maliki acknowledged Thursday that US aid, largely for an estimated 660,000 Iraqi troops, police forces and government-backed militias, will be needed far beyond 2011 to make Iraq safe.

"Despite accomplishing big progress in building these forces, they need more training, more rehabilitation and secure equipment," he said.

Ultimately, it's political leaders who make the final call, and without repeated spectacular attacks that signal the return of sectarian violence, there's little reason for Al Maliki or the White House to budge from the 2011 timeline.

"Right now, it makes no sense for the White House to rethink the policy, and there's no political advantage for Al Maliki to signal weakness or vacillation when that decision doesn't have to be made today and the reality isn't yet clear," said Juan Zarate, a fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies who sat on the National Security Council during the Bush administration.

But he predicts "a serious debate" down the road on whether to keep troops in Iraq, especially if their departure could lead to Iranian meddling or threaten American interests.

No guarantee

Even if Iraq's government asks for US troops to stay, there's no guarantee the Obama administration will agree to it.

Doing so would likely infuriate Democrats within Obama's political base after he promised during his 2008 campaign to end what he termed "a dumb war."

Obama already has his hands full with the other, longer war in Afghanistan and with Republicans who are pummelling him with nonstop criticism of his handling of it.