Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Friday that Iraq and the United States had made “progress” in discussions about whether to keep U.S. troops in that country beyond the end of the year — a rare note of optimism after months of talks going nowhere.
In a joint interview with Military Times and Stars and Stripes, Panetta was asked for an update on the Obama administration’s efforts to persuade Iraqi leaders to decide whether they want any U.S. troops to stay after Dec. 31.
“My view is that they finally did say yes,” Panetta responded, summarizing recent internal Iraqi government decisions. “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.”
In Baghdad, two of Iraq’s top spokesmen said late Friday in response to Panetta’s remarks that no agreement on troop presence had yet been reached by the Iraqi government, reporter Annie Gowen writes.
Ali al-Mussawi, the media adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said in a television interview that Panetta’s statement was “not true” and the possibility that a small contingent of American troops will stay on in Iraq after the December deadline “hasn’t been agreed on yet.”
Around 46,000 troops remain in Iraq, and U.S. military officials have floated the possibility that a small contingent of around 10,000 could remain after the Dec. 31 deadline to train Iraqi forces. U.S. military officials said in a briefing earlier this month that only 47 American bases remain open, down from a high of 505 in January 2008, and that the drawdown was in its endgame.
“At this time, there has been no decision made about future U.S. security arrangements in Iraq beyond 2011 and our policy remains unchanged,” a spokesman for the U.S. forces in Iraq said Saturday. “We are on track to complete the withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of 2011.”
During a visit to Iraq last month, Panetta exhorted Iraqi leaders to make up their minds on whether they wanted to re-negotiate an agreement that the Bush administration reached with the Baghdad government to withdraw all U.S. forces by the end of 2011. “Dammit, make a decision,” he implored.
While the Iraqi government has opened the door to negotiations, it remains uncertain if a deal can be reached. The issue is politically sensitive in Iraq, where many people would like the Americans to leave, but leaders acknowledge that they could use continued U.S. help to train their military and ensure stability.
In the absence of a new agreement, Panetta said the withdrawal would continue on the assumption that all U.S. troops would have to leave by Dec. 31.
“We will continue the drawdown, and we will fulfill the commitment that we are going to take all the combat forces out of Iraq,” he said. “That’s a commitment the president made to the country, and I think he clearly wants to stand by that.”