Panetta defends U.S. decision to break off talks with Iraq
REPORTING FROM WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration’s decision to break off talks on keeping U.S. troops in Iraq after this year came under fierce attack Tuesday from several lawmakers, who characterized it as a political decision that could lead to a resumption of bloodshed and increase Iran’s influence.
“The administration's failure to secure a presence of U.S. forces in Iraq have greatly and unnecessarily increased the odds that the war in Iraq may be remembered not as the emerging success that it appeared when the administration took office, but as something tragically short of that,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta testified that the decision last month was made after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki informed the White House that it would be impossible to get an agreement providing legal protection for U.S. troops approved by Iraq's parliament.
“It was at the point where [Maliki] basically said, 'I can't deliver it, I can't get it through the parliament,' that we were then left with the decisions that were made,” Panetta said.
He acknowledged that there was a continuing threat of militant violence in Iraq and that “destabilizing actions” by Iran, including its nuclear program and its backing of Shiite militant groups, were a continuing threat. “But the bottom line is that this is not about us. It's about what the Iraqis want to do,” he said.
The U.S. will hold further talks with Maliki on continuing U.S. military assistance, he said.
McCain, however, charged that the White House had delayed the talks too long and whittled down the size of a stay-behind force from more than 20,000 to about 3,000. Even then, he and several other lawmakers contended, the administration did not push hard to remain, because President Obama had pledged as a candidate to end the war.
“The truth is that this administration was committed to the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and they made it happen,” McCain said.
“Sen. McCain, that's just simply not true,” Panetta responded. "I was not about to have our troops go there, in place, without those immunities.”
The U.S. currently has about 30,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Almost all of them will depart by the end of December, though several hundred will remain at 10 bases as part of a limited training effort.
They will be part of a U.S. presence expected to number about 16,000, many of whom will be contractors responsible for providing security at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and other facilities.
Some of the remaining U.S. military personnel, said Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will provide counter-terrorism training but will not go on missions with Iraqi units.
-- David S. Cloud
Photo: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday. Credit: Mark Wilson / Getty Images