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Here we are in 2011, the year of a deadline that up to now nobody has quite entirely believed. The United States is supposed withdraw all the remaining American troops from Iraq by the end of this year. The arrangement has generally been viewed as fairly flexible, something that could be renegotiated if Iraq remained unstable.

But Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is now settling in for a second term and he's indicating that the final withdrawal of American troops should take place exactly as scheduled.

NPR's Kelly McEvers reports from Baghdad.

KELLY MCEVERS: Over the past two years, U.S. troops have remained in Iraq under a treaty between the two countries known as a status of forces agreement. It's set to expire at the end of this year. But American generals and Iraqi politicians have long hinted that the two sides might reach a deal to extend the deadline - if, of course, the Iraqi government formally requested it. Then came an interview Maliki granted the Wall Street Journal last week. In it he said the existing agreement is, quote, "sealed," that it's subject to neither extension nor alteration. But he did seem to leave open the possibility of a new agreement.

Mr. MOHAMMAD AL ASKARI (Defense Spokesmen, Iraq): (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Mohammad al Askari is Maliki's defense spokesmen. He explained the Iraqi government's public position this way.

Mr. AL ASKARI: (Through translator) I don't believe there is any need for them to stay after 2011, because we are ready right now, we are fully qualified, competent. And we don't have a will or wish for them to stay here, and there won't be any American forces after 2011.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Askari recently appeared on state TV with a U.S. military spokesman. He led viewers through a lengthy presentation of how Iraq has systematically built up its armed forces since the 2003 invasion.

Analysts here say Maliki and his aides have no choice but to publicly distance themselves from the idea of an extended U.S. troop presence. That's because Maliki's new coalition government now includes members of the fiercely anti-American bloc led by Muqtada al-Sadr. And any new agreement would have to be approved by parliament.

So now U.S. officials here are anticipating what they'll do if all the troops actually do have to leave.

James Jeffrey is the American ambassador here. He says what could happen is that some U.S. military personnel, namely officers and trainers, would remain in Iraq under the auspices of the embassy. This is already the case in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and elsewhere. Jeffrey says from the American perspective, at least, this would be perfectly legal.

Ambassador JAMES JEFFREY (U.S. Ambassador to Iraq): This is a normal part of a normal embassy in an area of the world where we have a large number of military sales and a robust security relationship. And it has nothing to do with stationing troops.

MCEVERS: Most independent defense analysts agree that some U.S. troop presence here in Iraq actually does make sense, even after the deadline. Some say those troops should help Iraqis improve their ability to analyze intelligence about militant groups and protect Iraq's air space from potentially hostile neighbors while helping develop Iraq's air force.

Stephen Biddle at the Council on Foreign Relations says some U.S. troops should stay, mainly to play the role of peacekeepers between Sunnis and Shiites and Arabs and Kurds. That's not the kind of role, he says, that a corps of military officers attached to an embassy could play.

Mr. STEPHEN BIDDLE (Council on Foreign Relations): If these guys are staff and not combat, then there are only certain discreet functions they can physically perform. I think having soldiers with weapons and some ability to kill people, visibly part of a column, is different than having what amounts to an office worker in a uniform.

MCEVERS: Biddle says the Iraqi government's position over whether it wants a combat-ready presence is likely to change over the course of this year. As with much in Iraqi politics, he says, the question of whether U.S. troops remain beyond the December deadline will probably be resolved at the eleventh hour.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Baghdad.

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