CAMP VICTORY, Iraq — With plans to retire later this year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates began saying his goodbyes to troops in Iraq on Thursday. But whether the 47,000 servicemembers in Iraq also will get to head home later this year remains undecided.

Despite an agreement with Iraq to remove all U.S. troops by Dec. 31 — and popular and budgetary pressures in Washington to limit U.S. military engagements globally — military leaders are making clear they believe Iraqi Security Forces will need U.S. protection and training beyond the deadline.

U.S. officials who met with Gates spent far more time laying out a detailed case of what Iraq will miss without U.S. forces than portraying a country ready to stand up on its own.

Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Forces-Iraq, said Iraq cannot defend its skies and will lose radar and intelligence capabilities when Americans leave. And the Iraqi’s continue to purchase tanks, howitzers and other equipment that they’ll have to learn to use without U.S. assistance.

In an earlier meeting with Gates and Austin, U.S. Ambassador Jim Jeffrey said the U.S. military is the glue holding Iraq together through a rocky period.

Ask if he agreed, Austin said, “I think the U.S. military has clearly been a key element in the development of things here, and that’s what you’d fully expect. … Security is really the element that underpins all this other activity.”

After Gates met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq and President Jalal Talabani, the secretary’s spokesman said it was clear U.S. troops were still wanted.

“It is our sense that there is a recognition on the part of Iraqi leaders that there is still a need for U.S. forces in some capacity,” said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell. “What we are talking about though, if it were to come to be, would be a fraction of the total force that is here now. This is not a discussion of how to maintain 47,000 [or] 50,000 forces in Iraq. The discussion here is about how to fulfill particular needs in their security architecture, and that will require far fewer forces than what are currently here now.”

The U.S. military now is stuck waiting for the Iraqi government to fill several key posts.

“I think clearly the long time that it’s taken to form a government has had an impact on all of this,” Austin said.

Without a minister of defense or interior, it’s difficult for the military and police forces to talk and figure out what is needed to make their recommendation.

Those ministries are supposed to link daily operational information to larger strategy, and perhaps more importantly, explain to Iraqi citizens what capabilities they have.Gates said he believed Iraqis wanted the U.S. to remain, but government leaders need to determine what they want and ask for it.

“If folks here are going to want us to have a presence, we’re going to need to get on with it pretty quickly,” Gates said. The U.S. needs time to “figure out where we get the forces,” he said, as well as time to determine what types of troops will be needed.

The secretary spoke to a gathering of 200 troops from the 2nd Advise and Assist Brigade, 1st Infantry Division at U.S. Division-Central headquarters in Baghad’s Victory Base Complex.

“We are willing to have a presence beyond that time, but we’ve got a lot of commitments around the world,” Gates said. “Everybody’s aware of what we’ve got going on in Libya, but very few people are aware we’ve got 19 ships and about 18,000 servicemen and women helping in the Japanese relief effort.”

The number of U.S. troops that could stay behind will depend on what help the Iraqis seek, Austin told reporters in his office at al-Faw Palace.

“I haven’t made a recommendation because they haven’t asked yet,” Austin said, “but certainly we think about these things all the time.”

With the future in flux, Gates nevertheless took a moment to reflect on the progress Americans have helped bring to Iraq.

“It has been a long and painful journey for everybody,” Gates said, “but these young men and women and those who have come before them paid a terrible price to get this country to where it is today, and I think Americans should certainly take pride in what they’ve accomplished.”

People have long told Gates he would be evaluated as defense secretary by how Iraq turned out, he recalled.

“I’ll let people judge for themselves.”

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