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US troops in Iraq: US, Maliki weigh possible extension

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"We've not had the ability to really focus in earnest on providing for an external defensive capability. So the Iraqis still need to work on that," Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of United States Forces – Iraq (USF-I), told reporters recently. He said Iraqis also still lacked the ability to defend their skies and needed to develop their intelligence capability and logistics.

In addition to advanced training required on US tanks and artillery they've purchased, they also need training on how to use them together. "It's pretty complex – they're likely to have continued needs well into the future," says Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, spokesman for USF-I.

Key concern: Peace along disputed internal borders

But the major and more politically sensitive area of concern is the US military's role in keeping tensions from erupting along the disputed boundaries between the Kurdish-controlled north and central Iraq. In those flash-point areas, US soldiers have served as a buffer between the Kurdish peshmerga forces and Iraqi government soldiers.

"Let's be clear – the reason we should stay is to keep the Iraqis from fighting each other, particularly the Kurds and the Arabs," says Peter Mansoor, a former executive officer to Gen. David Petraeus and a professor of military history at Ohio State University. "We can couch it in whatever terms we want to but ... they need us to protect them from themselves," he said in a telephone interview.

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