By Serena Chaudhry
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - NATO will continue a small training mission in Iraq until the end of 2013, an alliance official said on Monday, in what could signal flexibility from Baghdad over the presence of foreign troops months before a deadline for all U.S. forces to withdraw.
Washington, which still has 43,000 troops in Iraq, is due to withdraw entirely by the end of this year. But it has been in sensitive discussions with Baghdad about whether some of its troops may still be needed in a training or advisory role.
Colonel Michael Russell, chief of staff for NATO's Iraq training mission, said the alliance had agreed to keep its small team, now numbering 160 staff, in Iraq after Baghdad agreed not to extend the mission beyond 2013 and to pay part of the costs.
Iraq had also offered the NATO trainers "protection privileges" such as the right to self defense, although the details were still being hammered out, Russell said.
U.S. officials have said they would require similar safeguards if Washington is to keep any of its own troops in Iraq beyond this year.
The United States ended combat operations a year ago and is required under a 2008 agreement to withdraw all its forces by December 31 unless Baghdad invites them to stay on. Any such decision would be politically fraught for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
NATO's far smaller operation is largely under the radar. Unlike in Afghanistan, where NATO is in charge of the main U.S.-led international force waging war against the Taliban, the alliance has played only a non-combat role in Iraq since many European allies refused to join President George W. Bush's "coalition of the willing" that invaded in 2003.
NATO has operated a training mission since 2004, providing expertise in areas such as logistics and policing for nascent Iraqi security forces. The team now includes about 12 Americans, Russell said.
More than eight years since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraqi security forces are still battling a stubborn Sunni insurgency and Shi'ite militia, both capable of carrying out lethal attacks.
Iraqi security forces say they still need training for their air and naval defences. NATO has been working with U.S. forces to identify gaps in Iraq's security forces, Russell said.
"Our teams have been working with the Iraqi training assistance missions and in anticipation of the American drawdown of forces, all this year, we've been working with the Americans to identify where these capability gaps will remain," he said.