Panetta Expects Iraq to Extend U.S. Presence
WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Leon Panetta voiced confidence Friday that Iraq would agree to some continued U.S. military presence beyond the official American withdrawal at the end of the year.
Mr. Panetta and top U.S. commanders have been pressing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other leaders for months to make up their minds about whether to ask the U.S. to keep forces in Iraq beyond Dec. 31. That's when the pullout of the remaining 46,000 U.S. troops in Iraq is scheduled to be completed under the terms of a longstanding agreement between the two governments.
In an interview with military reporters, Mr. Panetta said President Barack Obama was committed to completing the drawdown. But the defense secretary said he believed Iraq will ask some American forces to stay to train Iraqi troops and, perhaps, help the Iraqis secure the country. He said the negotiations now underway would determine "what that presence will look like."
"It was unanimous consent among the key leaders of the country to go ahead and request that we negotiate on some kind of training, what a training presence would look like," Mr. Panetta said. "The issue will then will become what is the kind of training assistance and presence that Iraq feels it needs in order to be able to defend itself and secure itself."
Pentagon spokesman George Little said later that Mr. Panetta was not predicting the outcome of negotiations with the Iraqi government.
"The secretary was asked if there had been progress in our discussions with the Iraqi government since his visit six weeks ago," Mr. Little said. "He made clear that the Iraqis have said yes to discussions about the strategic relationship beyond 2011, and what that relationship might look like."
U.S. military leaders have drawn up options for a continued U.S. military presence that include keeping around 10,000 troops in Iraq.
During his visit to Baghdad in July, Mr. Panetta voiced frustration with the slow pace of decision-making by Mr. Maliki's government, saying: "Dammit, make a decision."
Mr. Panetta is the senior-most U.S. official to publicly voice confidence that Iraqi leaders would ask for an extended military presence.
Advocates of a continued U.S. military presence point to the recent spike in violence, including a deadly bombing spree which U.S. officials blamed on al Qaeda in Iraq, as justification for an extension.
Top U.S. military officials believe that leaving a sizeable force beyond this year could bolster Iraqi stability and counter the ambitions of Iran, the major American nemesis in the region. U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Israel have echoed the concern that if the U.S. pulls out completely, Iran could extend its influence.
The roundtable included reporters from Stars and Stripes and the Military Times.