RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In Iraq the plan is for U.S. troops to leave by the end of this year. And Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said there's no need for a continued U.S. troop presence there. American commanders are not so sure. NPR's Kelly McEvers recently spent a day with General Lloyd Austin, who commands all U.S. troops in Iraq. She sent this report.
KELLY MCEVERS: U.S. military officials have long hinted they want to stay beyond the December 31st deadline. Now they're saying it out loud. Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently told Congress talks are ongoing about extending the deadline. One congressman suggested there could be 20,000 troops here next year, down from the roughly 50,000 here now.
The military's line is that while Iraqis are doing pretty well at internal security, they need more help protecting their borders, building up an air force from almost nothing.
(Soundbite of ratcheting)
And learning how to operate and maintain equipment like this American-made M1A1 Abrams tank.
General LLOYD AUSTIN (U.S. Army): It's a great tank. And I think what's really good is that you can hit targets while you're moving.
MCEVERS: That's General Lloyd Austin, who recently toured the facility where Iraqis will be training on more than 100 Abrams tanks. At a time of what's supposed to be a draw-down of U.S. forces, a representative of the company that builds the tanks talked about how much it will cost to build up this base.
Unidentified Man: And then if we do everything that's involved in phase two, it's about another eight and a half million dollars.
MCEVERS: This kind of spending puts the U.S. military in a difficult spot, especially back in Washington. On one hand, they have to say Iraq is a success story, that all that American blood and treasure wasn't for naught. On the other hand, they have to say there's still work to be done, so lawmakers increasingly averse to spending will continue funding military efforts here.
If a large contingent of US troops doesn't remain in Iraq, the plan is to shift much responsibility to the state department. But that means funding a private army of contractors to do things that Austin says the real army does best.
Gen. AUSTIN: If you're talking about combined arms training and joint training, then uniformed people probably do better at conducting that type of training.
MCEVERS: For U.S. troops to stay and do that training, Iraq has to formally ask them. Many analysts believe Iraqi officials will wait until the last minute to do so, mainly because no Iraqi politician wants to be seen as pro-American. But Austin says the Iraqis simply can't wait forever to ask.
Gen. AUSTIN: The answer is we always need as much time as we can possibly get.
MCEVERS: The issue here isn't only whether Iraq is ready to go it alone. It's also about arms sales from the U.S. to Iraq, literally billions of dollars for tanks and F16 fighter jets. And building what's known as a military-to-military relationship between the U.S. and Iraq.
Analysts say it was this kind of relationship, buying and selling arms, training together, conducting joint exercises over the years, that allowed the U.S. military to help influence the Egyptian military not to use violence against its people during the recent uprising. Austin says that kind of relationship would be useful in a place like Iraq, where you never know what's going to happen.
Gen. AUSTIN: Being familiar with the leaders in the military certainly gives you someone to be able to establish contact with early on. And certainly those kinds of people can help maintain stability in the long term.
Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Baghdad.�
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