WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is considering staging American troops in Kuwait next year as a backup or rotational training force for Iraq, after the Pentagon completes the scheduled withdrawal of its current 45,000-strong force from Iraq in December, U.S. officials said.
The proposal, not yet publicly announced, is among a number of options the administration is considering for extending its military training role in still-violent Iraq, whose divided government has been reluctant to directly ask Washington to keep troops on its soil beyond this year.
All troops are to depart Iraq by Dec. 31 under a 2008 security agreement, but senior U.S. officials are concerned that without more training the Iraqi forces may squander hard-won security gains. The Iraqi army, for example, is only now taking delivery of U.S. battle tanks, on which they have yet to be trained.
Iraq's security forces are improving but still lack the capability to fully defend Iraqi air space, borders and territorial waters, U.S. military officers say.
"There are some gaps in their military capabilities, their security capabilities, that we believe we could offer some assistance with," Navy Capt. John Kirby, a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday. Discussions with the Iraqis on this are in an early stage, Kirby added.
The Obama administration favors a proposal that would leave 3,000 to 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq next year to train Iraqi forces, U.S. officials said this week. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because Iraq has not yet asked for any extension of forces.
It has not previously been reported that staging U.S. forces in Kuwait as a part of that training mission — or possibly in addition to that mission — is under consideration. One of the U.S. officials said the administration would foresee the Kuwait arrangement lasting for three years, starting in 2012, with troops rotating into Iraq for six-month stints. No decisions have been made, and it was not clear whether direct talks with the Kuwaiti government have begun.
Kuwait has played a key role in the Iraq war from its beginning. The bulk of U.S. ground forces launched the invasion from Kuwaiti territory in March 2003, and the tiny Gulf state has served as a transit point for coalition supply convoys and air transport throughout the conflict. The U.S. uses Kuwaiti air and land bases and maintains a small force in the country now. The Iraq backup forces would be in addition to that contingent.
The final stage of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq began this week, and discussions with the Iraqi government on extending a U.S. military presence beyond 2011 began in August. Those talks are being led by the State Department. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said this week that no decisions have been made about any potential troop extension, although he said an extended U.S. training mission is at the core of the talks.
Iraqi leaders are fearful that issuing a formal invitation for U.S. forces to stay would trigger a political backlash from their own followers, including some who have threatened widespread violence and attacks on the troops if they do not leave. For that reason, one option under U.S. consideration is to have a portion of the U.S. training force based in Kuwait; they would rotate into Iraq for limited periods, and return to Kuwait, one official said.
Several U.S. officials said the Kuwait option is under consideration. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the diplomatically sensitive matter. Kuwait's defense attache in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
Another option under Pentagon consideration is positioning a small U.S. combat force in Kuwait that could rush into Iraq in the event of a security problem or to target an insurgent threat, two officials said. Another possibility is to retain in Kuwait some of the U.S. ground combat equipment that is being pulled out of Iraq, instead of shipping it back to the U.S. It could be kept in Kuwait as so-called "pre-positioned" war materiel, one official said.
Kirby and the Pentagon's press secretary, George Little, said they would not discuss any aspect of a possible U.S. troop extension.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army's new chief of staff and a former top commander in Iraq, told reporters Thursday that he could not comment on the appropriate number of U.S. troops that should be kept in Iraq for training purposes next year. But he emphasized the need to keep the number small.
"When I was leaving Iraq a year ago, I felt we had to be careful about leaving too many people in Iraq," Odierno said. He added later, "The larger the force that we leave behind," the more the negative Iraqi views of the Americans as occupiers would remain, "and we get away from why we are really there — to help them to continue to develop."
Odierno also said he has seen indications lately that the Iraqis may need less U.S. military help in tamping down Arab-Kurd tensions in northern Iraq than previously assumed. He said some had believed 5,000 U.S. troops were needed for that purpose. But if the Iraqis in fact are capable of handling that on their own, "then we won't need those 5,000," he said.
Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor and Matthew Lee contributed to this report.
Robert Burns can be reached on Twitter (at)robertburnsAP.