As the White House debates keeping a much smaller force in Iraq after 2011, it will have to decide whether to give up a peacekeeping role in the country's volatile north, officials and analysts said Wednesday.
Amid negotiations with Iraqi leaders on the scope of a future US military mission, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has approved a tentative proposal to retain as few as 3,000-4,000 troops beyond an end-of-year deadline, a senior defense official told AFP.
The proposed smaller footprint, first reported by Fox News, has been floated as a way of navigating the politically-charged talks with Baghdad, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
US officials and senior officers had previously spoken of a larger training force of at roughly 10,000.
"If you go in with 10,000, then you may get nothing. You don't want to go heavy and overplay your hand," the official said.
The Obama administration's internal debate on Iraq requires the president's advisers and commanders to contemplate what tasks will be carried out by any follow-on force, and what missions might have to be jettisoned.
With the Iraqi military designed as a counter-insurgency force, US officers and experts have long argued that Iraq will need help with logistics, intelligence, counter-terrorism, air power and naval security.
But a lighter force of roughly 3,000 would be too small to address what top generals have said is perhaps the most serious threat to Iraq's stability -- ethnic tensions between Kurds and Arabs in the country's oil-rich north.
"The presence of American troops on that border has diminished tensions and de-escalated a number of incidents," said John Nagl, a decorated former Army officer and president of the Center for a New American Security.
The administration is examining what tasks now performed by troops could be handed over to private contractors, who are mostly American retired soldiers, but the peacekeeping mission in ethnically-mixed northern Iraq would likely not be one of them, he said.
"Probably the big mission that you can't imagine contractors doing is maintaining stability on the Kurdish-Arab border. That is probably an inherently governmental mission," said Nagl, whose think tank has had close ties with the administration of President Barack Obama.
US forces deployed in the north act as mediators between Kurdish and Iraqi army units, working to prevent misunderstandings and potential violent clashes over territorial disputes.
Roughly 4,000 to 5,000 troops would be needed to carry out the "honest broker" peacekeeping role in the north, Nagl said.
Panetta and Pentagon spokesmen have insisted no final decision has been made on future troop numbers, but Obama has already come under criticism for mulling such a scaled-back force.
Three senators issued a statement on Tuesday saying they were "deeply troubled" at the proposal and that such a scaled-back force would put at risk "hard-won" progress.
"We've won there, we should not give up that victory," House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon told reporters Wednesday.
Obama faces competing demands over Iraq, with fellow Democrats urging him to make good on his promise to end the US involvement there while Republicans and some military officers warn the country could unravel without enough US troops on the ground.
The administration has tried not to pile public pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki over the explosive issue, but the clock is ticking under the current security agreement that requires the remaining 46,000 American troops to withdraw by the end of the year.
Given the political difficulties, the defense official said a proposed lighter footprint likely would have a greater chance of winning support both in Baghdad and Washington.
"Three to four (thousand) is probably something Maliki can sell in Iraq and it is palatable to the American public," the official said.