Defense Secretary Leon Panetta urged Iraqi leaders to decide quickly on whether they want U.S. troops to stay in the country longer and he pressed them to act forcefully against alleged Iranian-backed militias targeting the force.
In separate meetings with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani, Panetta stressed the U.S. is running out of time to alter its plan to withdraw the 46,000 soldiers that remain in the country by Dec. 31, said Doug Wilson, a Pentagon spokesman who attended the meetings in Baghdad yesterday. Panetta didn’t express a position on whether Iraq should request an extension, he said.
“The Secretary made clear that we are neither pressuring nor pleading for U.S. troops to remain here and that we are continuing to withdraw our forces,” Wilson told reporters. “He said we need to know as soon as possible.”
The two countries have begun joint operations to halt a spate of attacks on American troops by a type of mortar and particularly powerful roadside bombs. The U.S. military attributes the assaults to an Iranian-backed militia with weapons from Iran.
Panetta, who was sworn in July 1, “was very strong in his encouragement to both Prime Minister Maliki and President Talabani to move aggressively” to thwart the attacks, Wilson said. The Iraqi leaders agreed the trend posed a challenge to their country, too, Wilson said.
The death toll for American troops in Iraq spiked to 15 in June, the biggest one-month loss of U.S. lives in at least two years. Panetta’s comments reflect U.S. concern over possible efforts by Shiite-led Iran to exert influence in a region thrown into further turmoil by this year’s “Arab Spring” revolts against authoritarian rulers.
Panetta, who has met with the Iraqi leaders in his previous position as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was direct with the two Iraqi leaders, Wilson said.
“He was very honest,” Wilson said. “He was blunt, and I think he was received in an honest and positive way.”
Panetta told troops at the U.S. military’s Camp Victory outside of Baghdad that the U.S. also will “do what we can unilaterally” to forestall further attacks.
“We’ll do what we need to do to protect ourselves,” Army General Lloyd Austin, the commander of American forces in Iraq, told reporters, citing examples such as increased patrols.
U.S. commanders and explosives experts showed reporters an array of parts recovered from recent attacks with explosively formed penetrators, a particularly deadly type of roadside bomb, and from “improvised rocket-assisted munitions,” or IRAMs, that are more powerful than conventional mortars.
Many of the attacks “have been attributed by forensics evidence to” an Iraqi militia group created, supplied and trained by the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, said Major General Jeffrey Buchanan, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq.
Military explosives experts at the demonstration cited electronics, chemical signs and biometric data such as fingerprints. That evidence that can be matched with other intelligence information to determine the origin, down to identifying the factory where they were made, Buchanan said.
Matt Schroeder, a small-arms specialist at the Federation of American Scientists, a policy group in Washington, has seen published reports of Iranian weapons ending up in the hands of insurgents in Iraq.
“The models of at least some of the weapons are consistent with what is publicly known about Iran’s inventories and weapons production,” Schroeder said in an e-mail. “Whether and to what extent the Iranian regime itself was directly involved in the diversion of these weapons is much more difficult to assess.”
Panetta arrived in Baghdad July 10 from Afghanistan on his first visit to the war zones as defense secretary.
Iraq’s delays on major decisions, such as naming ministers of defense and the interior after elections almost a year ago, “can be frustrating,” Panetta told the troops.
“Do they want us to stay or don’t they want us to stay?” he said in remarks peppered by curse words. “They want to get a minister of defense or don’t they want to get a minister of defense?”
Panetta has said the U.S. would “seriously consider” a proposal to keep some forces in Iraq.
Time Running Out
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has cited his force’s limited capabilities for intelligence collection, logistics, border security and protection of airspace as concerns, Austin, the commander, told reporters traveling with Panetta. Still, time is running out to change withdrawal plans, he said.
“When you get into the October-November time frame, you’re really taking things apart that are difficult to put back together,” Austin said.
A “residual” troop presence isn’t likely to rise to the level of a treaty that requires approval by the U.S. Senate, said Colin Kahl, deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, who attended Panetta’s meetings. Still, negotiating specific terms might take months, Kahl said.