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Panetta in Iraq to Press for Decision on US Troops

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, right, chats with US Generals Anthony Rock, left, and Lloyd Austin during a stop in southern Afghanistan late Sunday, July 10, 2011

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is in Baghdad, where he says he plans to press Iraqi leaders to decide whether they want U.S. troops to remain beyond an end-of-2011 deadline.

Panetta arrived in the Iraqi capital Sunday from Afghanistan, making his first visits to both nations since assuming the defense post earlier this month. Speaking to reporters at a U.S. base in Afghanistan before boarding a flight to Iraq, he said will "encourage" Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other officials to make a decision on the U.S. troop presence.

The United States is due to withdraw its remaining 46,000 troops from Iraq by December 31 under a 2008 agreement with the Iraqi government. But, U.S. and Iraqi officials have expressed concern about the ability of Iraqi government forces to cope with security after the pullout.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said Saturday political parties will decide within two weeks whether to ask the United States to keep some troops in Iraq after the deadline. One faction in Maliki's Shi'ite-led government already has expressed opposition to such a move - the political bloc of radical anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Panetta says he also will urge Iraqi leaders to do more to fight Shi'ite militias that the United States blames for most of the 15 U.S. troop deaths in Iraq last month. U.S. officials accuse Iran of supplying Shi'ite militiamen with weapons that killed most of the soldiers. June was the deadliest month for U.S. forces in Iraq in two years.

Some information for this report was provided by AP and Reuters.

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