By REBECCA SANTANA and LARA JAKES
BAGHDAD - Iraq's prime minister offered his clearest opening yet Wednesday for the possibility of extending the U.S. troop deployment past the Dec. 31 departure date, saying he would do so if most of the country's political blocs support the decision.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's comments were just as significant for what he did not say. On many previous occasions, he has insisted American troops will not be needed beyond the end of the year. But this time when asked by a reporter whether he personally supports keeping troops in Iraq, he declined to answer.
"You want to make me say yes or no before I gather the national consensus?" al-Maliki retorted. "I will not say it."
His words signaled a shift that could open the way for a long-term American troop presence in Iraq.
He said he will meet with political leaders by the end of May to gauge support. And his insistence that it be a unified decision underscored how difficult it will be for any Iraqi leader to admit needing more military help from the country that invaded eight years ago.
"I will bring the leaders of the political blocs together. If they say yes, I will agree and if they say no, I will reject it," al-Maliki said at a news conference at his office in the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad.
He faces an American-imposed deadline to decide within weeks whether to ask U.S. troops to stay longer. A revolving door of American officials, including Adm. Mike Mullen and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, have passed through Iraq in recent weeks, each appearing intent on getting Iraq to make up its mind.
The U.S. has suggested it would favor extending the troop presence in Iraq. Gates has acknowledged that the U.S. has an interest in having more U.S. troops in Iraq after this year. And in an indication that there would be some Congressional support, Speaker of the House John Boehner said after an April trip to Iraq that the U.S. should keep a residual force in the country.
But the U.S. has always been clear that it must be Iraq who does the asking.
The U.S. military still has about 46,000 troops in the country, millions of pieces of equipment and nearly 70 bases. U.S. officials have said they need to be able to make plans on what will go and what will stay. The agreement governing the presence of the remaining American troops took months to hammer out in 2008, and coming up with a new agreement could take equally as long.
The departure of U.S. troops could leave Iraq vulnerable. It cannot yet protect its own airspace, and relies on the U.S. for intelligence-gathering capabilities and logistics and maintenance of its military equipment.
Equally important might be the nervousness many Iraqis feel at how the U.S. departure will affect sectarian relations. The U.S.-led invasion in 2003 deposed dictator Saddam Hussein, whose Sunni-led government ruled over the country's Shiite majority. The invasion paved the way for a Shiite-led government, that is now drifting closer to Iran.
Many Sunnis and even Shiites worry that Iraq is falling too much into Iran's orbit, something that will only increase when the U.S. military leaves.
One of the biggest obstacles to the U.S. staying on is al-Maliki's own political partner: Muqtada al-Sadr. The anti-American Shiite cleric was instrumental in al-Maliki, also a Shiite, securing a second term last fall. He is vehemently against any extended American troop presence and has vowed violence if the American troops stay longer.
Many Sunni and Kurdish leaders want U.S. troops to remain to help the nation become more stable and to continue training security forces that are still unprepared to defend their borders.
But even within the Sunni community, publicly supporting a U.S. troop extension is a tough sell with their constituencies. Iraqis in the northern city of Mosul and the western province of Anbar - both Sunni strongholds - have demonstrated against American troops staying longer.
Members of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc contacted Wednesday said they would wait to see the details of any troop proposal before deciding whether to back it.
"In general, Iraqiya rejects extending the American troops. We are against that. But if al-Maliki submits logical and satisfactory justifications for the extension such as the inability of Iraqi forces, then we will study that," said an Iraqiya lawmaker, Nahida al-Dayni.
Al-Maliki said he doesn't expect 100 percent agreement but that if 70 percent or more of the blocs approve the troop extension, then the rest should respect the decision.
His words seemed to be a direct warning to al-Sadr to not cause havoc if an agreement is reached.
"The decision (to keep troops) is the responsibility of the political arena, and al-Sadr and the Sadrist movement are part of the political arena," al-Maliki said.
Al-Maliki said American leaders have asked Baghdad for an answer before August so they can start withdrawing soldiers and shutting down dozens of bases scattered across the country.
Associated Press Writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Mazin Yahya contributed to this report.