WASHINGTON (AP) — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Tuesday defended President Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq in seven weeks but left open the possibility for continued negotiations with Baghdad over a force presence there.
In heated exchanges with Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Panetta insisted that the administration had no choice in fulfilling the agreement reached by Obama’s predecessor, GOP President George W. Bush, to pull out troops by year’s end. Negotiations for a small, residual force failed over Iraq’s refusal to grant legal immunity to American forces.
"The bottom line is that this is not about us," Panetta told the committee. "It’s about what the Iraqis want to do and the decisions that they want to make. And so we have now an independent and sovereign country that can govern and secure itself, and hopefully, make the decisions that are in the interests of its people."
Eight years of war have left more than 4,400 Americans dead and more than 32,000 wounded. Obama announced on Oct. 21 that U.S. forces would leave Iraq, fulfilling his 2008 campaign promise.
Still, Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the panel that the U.S. military will continue limited counterterrorism training with Iraqi forces at up to 10 camps around the country beyond the end of the year.
They also disclosed more details about the make-up and duties of the U.S. Office of Security Cooperation personnel — both military and civilian — who will remain in the country. Some of those personnel, Dempsey said, will provide counterterrorism training inside the camps, but will not venture outside the wire with Iraqi security forces.
"This isn’t a divorce," Dempsey said. "It might — it may feel that way because of the way the numbers of — the way the Iraqi government came to the decision. But the fact is, we will be embedded with them as trainers not only tactically, but also at the institutional level."
Panetta said the United State may ultimately negotiate a further presence for the U.S. military in Iraq. The Pentagon chief also pointed out that the United States has some 40,000 troops in the region, including in Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
"We’re not going anywhere," Panetta said.
The details emerged during often fiery partisan debate over whether the Obama administration’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of the year was driven by a purely political desire to end the war.
Senators, led by Obama’s 2008 presidential rival, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., complained that using thousands of contractors in Iraq in place of U.S. troops beginning next year will be more costly and create a greater security risk in the country and the region.
Under current plans, there would be about 16,000 U.S. U.S. embassy personnel in Iraq, and a large portion of those would be civilian contractors handling security.
"The truth is that this administration was committed to the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and they made it happen," McCain told Panetta during a particularly heated exchange.
"Senator McCain, that’s simply not true," Panetta shot back, adding, "This is about negotiating with a sovereign country, an independent country. This was about their needs; this is not about us telling them what we’re going to do for them."
McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., insisted that military and Iraqi officials provided them with different information during their visits to the country. Graham said Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told him that a residual force of some 19,000 American troops would be necessary.
Austin has said repeatedly that Iraq is not yet fully capable of defending its own air space or land borders, and that it needs help in other areas such as intelligence and logistics.
U.S. officials and Iraqi officials have acknowledged that they failed to reach an agreement that would give U.S. forces in Iraq legal immunity. U.S. military leaders said they would not leave troops in the country without legal protections, particularly considering the country’s immature judicial system.
"If you’re going to engage in those kind of (counterterrorism) operations," Panetta said, "you absolutely have to have immunities."
U.S. officials have suggested that they may move at least 4,000 of the troops to Kuwait.
On Tuesday, Dempsey said that the U.S. should have ground, air and naval forces that rotate in and out of Kuwait, including some number of combat troops.
Dempsey also noted that the Office of Security Cooperation will operate out of 10 Iraqi bases, where they will be able to provide equipping and training assistance, such as when new F-16 fighter jets are delivered, or on the use of tanks at a gunnery range in Besmaya, southeast of Baghdad.
Senators said they were concerned that pulling all U.S. forces out of Iraq will leave the country open to meddling by Iran that could destabilize the fledgling democracy.
Pentagon leaders agreed, saying that the U.S. has told the Iraqis they must continue to battle Iranian-backed extremist groups.
And they said the U.S. will continue to have a broad military presence in the region.
The U.S. currently has about 24,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, but the bulk of those troops will be out of the country by mid-December.