Iraq's political leaders gave the government the green light Tuesday to begin negotiating a deal with the United States to keep American troops in the country past the end of the year to train Iraqi security forces.
But Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said a final agreement is still far from settled and cautioned that Baghdad could still insist the U.S. military leave by the end of 2011 as required under a 2008 security agreement.
"The government still might not do it [allow U.S. troops to stay]," Zebari told the Associated Press after the closed-door discussions.
"This is a politically highly charged issue, and there was division," he said. "But this meeting unified all the political leaders to back the government and start the negotiations."
The small step forward was the result of five hours of often-heated debate among several dozen Iraqi political leaders and Cabinet ministers.
Zebari said no details were settled -- like how many U.S. troops would stay, or for how long, or whether they would be given legal immunity from prosecution.
Those issues will be key factors as Washington weighs whether it will continue its military presence in Iraq after more than eight years of war.
Earlier Tuesday, the U.S. Joint Chiefs chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, left Iraq after a brief visit during which he urged the government to quickly request the troops to stay -- or face their imminent departure.
"A significant part of this is just a physics problem," Mullen, the outgoing top U.S. military officer, told reporters in Baghdad on Tuesday morning. "You get to a point in time where you just can't turn back, and all the troops must leave."
Mullen also said that while the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are going down as U.S. forces withdraw, the latest debt agreement passed by Congress will demand defense cuts.
Nothing is off the table, he said. Cuts in health care, retirement and benefits for the military are all potential targets for cuts as the United States struggles to rein in spending, Mullen told troops.