Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, defending President Barack Obama’s decision to proceed with the U.S. military exit from Iraq, said the Persian Gulf nation is prepared to handle security threats including violent extremists and Iran’s influence.
Iraqi forces have long had primary responsibility for internal security, Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee during a hearing held in response to Republican criticism of the pullout. Incidents of violence involving security forces number less than 100 a week, their lowest levels since the invasion in 2003 and down from a peak of about 1,500 in 2007, he said.
“I expect that we will see extremists, including al-Qaeda in Iraq and Iranian-backed militant groups that will continue to plan and carry out periodic high-profile attacks,” Panetta said. Still, he said, Iraq is an “emerging democracy” that is “able to address its own security needs.”
Obama announced last month that the U.S. will go through with the planned withdrawal of all its troops from Iraq before the end of this year, when a military cooperation agreement reached under President George W. Bush expires.
The Obama administration, which sought to extend the U.S. presence, abandoned that effort when Iraq refused to grant the troops immunity from Iraqi prosecution. The number of U.S. troops in Iraq has dropped to 24,000 from a peak of almost 170,000 in 2007, and 3,500 Americans have been killed in action.
Republicans led by Arizona Senator John McCain have been critical of the administration and requested today’s hearing. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would have been willing to make a deal to accept some troops and grant the needed immunity had U.S. officials proposed an acceptable plan, said McCain, who visited Iraq this year with a congressional delegation.
“This decision represents a failure of leadership, both Iraqi and American,” said McCain, the top Republican on the committee. He accused Obama and al-Maliki of making the withdrawal decision in the interest of “political expediency.”
“This administration was committed to the complete withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and they made it happen,” McCain said.
Panetta challenged that view.
“Senator McCain, that’s just simply not true,” Panetta said. “That’s not how it happened. This is about negotiating with a sovereign country, an independent country. This is about their needs.”
Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Obama’s top military adviser, said that while U.S. commanders favored leaving as many as 16,000 troops in Iraq, they wouldn’t consider that option without immunity.
McCain cited the cost of providing private contractors instead of troops to secure what will be the largest U.S. embassy in the world. The U.S. will have about 16,000 personnel in Iraq next year, including thousands of security contractors that McCain said cost significantly more than American soldiers.
Dempsey and Panetta said Iraq still faces threats from extremism, internal political clashes and Iranian efforts to undermine its progress. Iraq’s military lacks an air defense. Panetta said the U.S. will still have 40,000 American troops nearby in the Gulf region after the mission ends.
The Iraqi forces number more than 650,000, committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said. Iraq also has oil revenue to assume the costs of its own security, he said.
Levin, who backed maintaining a U.S. force in the country only with immunity, said he’s concerned that recent arrests of Sunni political and intellectual leaders by Maliki’s Shiite-led government have exacerbated ethnic tensions in addition to unresolved conflicts with the Kurdish north over oil revenue.
The U.S. will continue to have an office of security cooperation in the American embassy and other posts around the country, said Dempsey, who was a commander in Iraq. The U.S. will offer training and support to help improve the Iraqi security capabilities, especially in intelligence, logistics and air defense, he said.
U.S. military and civilian defense personnel will work out of 10 bases to train and Iraqis to use and maintain the American weapons the country plans to buy, including 18 Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT) F-16 fighter jets.
Dempsey recalled how “in 1991, I left my family to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. In 2003, I left my family to drive Saddam Hussein out of Baghdad, and in 2011, we’re talking about establishing a normal security relationship with Iraq.”
“If you’re a colonel or a master sergeant in the armed forces of the United States or more senior than that, this has been a 20-year journey,” he said.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org