By NBF News

The US soldiers' role is to advise and assist Iraq's security forces in fighting insurgents

Iraq will ask the US to keep troops in the country beyond an end-of-2011 pullout deadline, says the nominee to be the next US defence secretary.

Outgoing CIA director Leon Panetta said he had “every confidence that a request like that will be forthcoming”.

Mr Panetta was speaking at a US Senate committee considering his nomination.

The US currently has about 47,000 troops in Iraq, none in a combat role. Under a 2008 deal, they are expected to leave by 31 December 2011.

“It's clear to me that Iraq is considering the possibility of making a request for some kind of [troop] presence to remain there [in Iraq],” Mr Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.

He said that whether that happened depended on what Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki might ask for.

But if Baghdad did make such a request, he added, Washington should say yes.

Mr Panetta did not say how many troops would be involved or what they would do.

He said there were still some 1,000 al-Qaeda members in Iraq, and the situation remained “fragile”.

Leon Panetta said the situation in Iraq remained “fragile”

“I believe that we should take whatever steps are necessary to make sure that we protect whatever progress we've made there,” Mr Panetta said.

The current US contingent is deployed in a training and advisory role.

In April, outgoing Defence Secretary Robert Gates said that American troops could, if required by Iraq, stay in the country beyond the withdrawal date.

Mr Gates had also expressed hope that Baghdad would make such a request.

The BBC's Andrew North in Washington says it seems likely that the US has offered Iraq some inducements to maintain its troop presence.

But any suggestion that President Barack Obama will allow some American forces to remain behind is bound to be seen as backpeddling by both his opponents and supporters on his commitment to pull out entirely from Iraq by this year, our correspondent says.

He adds that it will be controversial in Iraq as well, where there has been an increase in attacks on US bases apparently aimed at derailing any moves to keep American troops on.

US fatalities in Iraq have been rare since Washington officially ended combat operations in the country last August.

But earlier this week, five American soldiers were killed in central Iraq, in what is believed to be the US military's single most serious incident in the country in more than two years.