Washington: Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has expressed hope that the United States and Iraq can agree soon on a possible US military training role in Iraq  beyond December 31, when all American troops are scheduled to have left.

Panetta's Monday's remarks contrasted with indications from a senior Obama administration official and a senior US military official on Saturday that the US is abandoning plans to keep troops in Iraq past the year-end withdrawal deadline, other than about 160 troops who would be attached to the US Embassy.

Panetta and other top US officials have pressed the Iraqis for months to decide whether they want a substantial US military training mission in 2012. During his first visit to Baghdad as Pentagon chief in July, Panetta appeared exasperated by the Iraqis, at one point saying, "Damn it, make a decision."

But more recently Obama administration officials have displayed less of a public sense of urgency, while noting that the current US force of about 39,500 troops is on track to shrink to zero by year's end.

"At the present time I am not discouraged because we're still in negotiations with the Iraqis," Panetta said on Monday when asked by a reporter whether the talks had hit an impasse.

He said James Jeffrey, the US ambassador to Baghdad, and Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top US commander there, were in "discussions with Iraqi leaders" that could still yield agreement on a post-2011 US military presence.
Asked whether the US had given the Iraqis a "drop dead" date beyond which the US would not agree to halt its troop drawdown, Panetta said, "No, not at this point," adding, "We're continuing to negotiate."

At the State Department, spokesman Mark Toner said no final decisions about a future US military presence have been made. He would not discuss what is preventing agreement.

 "I would just say that discussions with Iraqis about the nature of that relationship are ongoing," Toner said.