The US will probably keep thousands of soldiers in Iraq beyond the official departure date of end 2011, despite US President Barack Obama's official announcement last week marking the end of the US combat mission, AFP reported Sunday.

American officials, speaking off the record, said that extension will likely happen as a result of the need to aid Iraq's military amid sectarian tensions.

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Just under 50,000 US troops remain in Iraq — down from a peak of nearly 170,000 at the height of the military surge in 2007. Those troops will be focused on training and assisting the Iraqi military, and will no longer be allowed to go on combat missions unless requested and accompanied by Iraqi forces.

The fear of political divisions, aggravated by the struggle for control of Iraq's oil potential, is ever present. Some Iraqis worry that without the American soldiers, their country will revert to a dictatorship or split along religious and ethnic fault lines.

US military officials say the reduction in troop numbers doesn't hinge on Iraq forming a new government, but on the ability of Iraqi forces to handle security on their own.

The dwindling US military presence has deepened concerns that Iraq will be taken over by its neighbors — namely Iran — who many think is waiting to fill the power vacuum created by the departing Americans.



According to the report, approximately 10,000 troops could remain in Iraq beyond the end of next year. These would not necessarily all be soldiers in uniform, but could also be security officials and special forces.

The US may also need to provide equipment the Iraqi military is severely lacking such as helicopters and fighter jets.

AP contributed to this report

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