U.S. combat operations in Iraq were supposed to end by August 31, 2010, signaling the beginning of the military's accelerated withdrawal from the country after more than seven years of war.

Since taking office President Obama has promised, repeatedly, that America's bloody occupation would finally, truly end by the close of 2011.

But, maybe it won't.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters on Wednesday that by the end of the month, approximately 50,000 U.S. soldiers will remain in Iraq to serve an advisory role to the country's military. Those forces, he said, would be fully withdrawn by the end of 2011.

Unless, that is, they're asked to stay.

At the time, that quote was noted only by Voice of America, the government's official news service. It was completely ignored by the mainstream press, until Intelligence Daily reporter Michael Collins noted the comment and ran it in a headline.

If Gates's aside is indeed the case, U.S. forces may be drawn into negotiations with Iraq's top-ranking military official, Lt. Gen. Babakir Zebari, who recently told western media that U.S. forces may be needed in Iraq until 2020.

"If I were asked about the withdrawal, I would say to politicians: the U.S. army must stay until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020," he was quoted saying last week.

Iraqi and U.S. officials quickly scrambled to issue clarifications, but the damage was done.

"Support for an ongoing US presence also came last week from an unlikely quarter, Saddam Hussein's former deputy, Tariq Aziz, who told the Guardian that Barack Obama would be 'leaving Iraq to the wolves' if he continued to withdraw troops," Britain's newspaper The Guardian noted.

Despite these warnings, the U.S. insisted its drawdown was "on target" and suggested that only as few as mere "dozens" of embassy guards might remain in Baghdad after 2011. There are now 64,000 American soldiers in Iraq.

"We're on target by the end of the month to end our combat mission," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told a press briefing.

Iraq has yet to form a working government more than two months after the country's national elections.

"We'll be doing in Iraq what we do in many countries around the world with which we have a security relationship that involves selling American equipment or training their forces, that is establishing some connecting tissue," said Anthony Blinken, national security advisor for the vice president.

"This is something that's common to many embassies around the world, under the authority of the chief of mission, the ambassador, and typically it involves some small numbers of military personnel," he said.

"But when I say small, I'm not talking thousands, I'm talking dozens or maybe hundreds, that's typically how much we would see."

Defense Secretary Gates, appointed by President George W. Bush after the retirement of Donald Rumsfeld, said Monday that he'd be leaving the post sometime in 2011.

With AFP.