SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq (AP) — The powerful leader of Iraq's Kurdish autonomous region made his first public appeal for American forces to stay in Iraq, saying on Tuesday that if they leave sectarian violence may erupt.
Massoud Barzani rules the three northern provinces that make up the Kurds' self-ruled region. While Kurds generally want American forces to stay in Iraq, Barzani's speech Tuesday marked the fist time he's taken a public stance in favor of keeping an American troop presence in Iraq into next year.
During a televised speech, Barzani said that, if American troops leave, the sectarian violence that plagued Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion might erupt anew. He called on the Iraqi government in Baghdad to sign an agreement with the Americans to keep forces in the country.
"In my opinion if the American forces withdraw there will be a possibility of civil war," he said.
Under a 2008 security agreement between Washington and Baghdad, all U.S. troops are slated to leave by Dec. 31, 2011. But continued instability and fear of growing Iranian influence in Iraq has prompted some Iraqi and U.S. officials to reconsider the deadline.
Iraq also does not have a powerful enough military to defend its borders and protect itself, Barzani said.
"Iraqi security forces are still not prepared to secure protection for Iraq and the Iraqi army is not prepared to guard borders and the air force possesses nothing," Barzani said.
There are currently about 45,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. At the beginning of August, Iraqi leaders announced that they would begin negotiations with the American government to keep a residual force in Iraq to help train Iraqi security forces.
Iraq's main political factions supported the decision with the exception of the virulently anti-American followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. But so far, no formal request has been made and the U.S. military is preparing to withdraw its forces as planned.
Two Iraqi officials said Tuesday that U.S. authorities have informed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that the American military withdrawal has officially begun.
The notice puts pressure on Iraqi leaders to decide quickly if they will ask some U.S. troops to stay. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information. A U.S. Embassy spokesman declined to comment.
The U.S. has stressed repeatedly that Iraq must formally request the American military to stay longer and describe specifically what type of role they would like the American military to play.
"That's really up to the Iraqis. At what point do they want to ask?" said U.S. Lt. Gen. Frank G. Helmick, the second-highest ranking American military officer in Iraq. Then the U.S. must decide whether they want to fulfill that request, he said.
But Helmick, speaking during an interview with The Associated Press Monday night, said the longer Iraq goes without making a decision, the more difficult it becomes for the American military to fulfill whatever it may be that the Iraqis ask.
"It's not to say that we can't turn it around or we can't stop. It just gets more difficult as time goes on. Would we like a decision six months ago? Yeah, sure. But we don't have it," he said.
Keeping U.S. troops in Iraq — even just to train their nascent Iraqi security forces — after more than eight years of war is widely unpopular among Iraqis, whose leaders are weighing whether the security risks are worth the political backlash.
Associated Press writers Rebecca Santana at al-Asad Air Base and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this report.