Reid J. Epstein / Politico – 2011-08-23 12:55:43
(August 19, 2011) — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Iraqâ€™s government has agreed to extend the U.S. military presence in the country beyond 2011 — but Iraq quickly rejected the claim.
The word from Panetta, during an interview with Stars & Stripes, was the first official indication that any of the 46,000 American troops will remain in Iraq beyond the country’s December 31 deadline for U.S. forces to leave. The U.S. and Iraq reached a security agreement in 2008 that the entire American military would be out of the country by the end of 2011.
“My view is that they finally did say, ‘Yes,'” Panetta told the military’s official newspaper. He told the paper he urged the Iraqis six weeks ago to “damn it, make a decision” about allowing U.S. troops to remain in the country into 2012.
But shortly after Panetta’s interview hit the Internet, a spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told Agence-France Presse that no deal is in place.
“We have not yet agreed on the issue of keeping training forces,” spokesman Ali Mussawi said. “The negotiations are ongoing, and these negotiations have not been finalized.”
Panetta said the Pentagon has already begun planning for the continued presence in Iraq.
After Stars & Stripes published its interview, Pentagon press secretary George Little provided reporters a transcript of Panetta’s interview with the paper.
In that transcript, Panetta is quoted saying: “My view is that they finally did say yes, which is that, as a result of a meeting that [Iraqi President Jalal] Talabani had last week, that â€¦ 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, they did at least put in place a process to try and get a minister of defense decided and we think theyâ€™re making some progress on that front.”
Panetta also said, according to the official transcript, that the Pentagon will abide by President Barack Obama’s pledge to end U.S. military operations in Iraq.
“We have begun the drawdown, and 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. The issue will then become what is the kind of training assistance and presence that Iraq feels it needs in order to be able to defend itself and secure itself.”
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