Panetta Addresses Iraq Troop Withdrawal On The Hill

Top Pentagon leaders went to Capitol Hill Tuesday and took tough questions from lawmakers on the future of the U.S. relationship with Iraq. Specifically, they addressed how the decision to withdraw all U.S. combat troops by the end of this year will impact Iraq's stability — and U.S. national security interests in the region. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told a congressional committee that, while U.S. military commanders wanted to keep a contingency force on the ground, it was Iraq's decision to make.

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American troops will be out of Iraq by the end of the year. Today on Capitol Hill, two top Pentagon officials explained why the U.S. agreed to withdraw. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta made the case, along with the nation's top military officer, General Martin Dempsey

As NPR's Rachel Martin reports, they also tried to reassure senators that leaving Iraq won't be a mistake.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Secretary Panetta tried to reassure a lot of others too.

SECRETARY LEON PANETTA DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE: Our message to our allies, our friends and our potential adversaries is very clear. We have more than 40,000 American troops that remain in the Gulf region. We're not going anywhere.

MARTIN: But come December 31st, the remaining 24,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq will be out. That was the deal signed in 2008 by President George W. Bush and Iraq's prime minister. But American and Iraqi military commanders had recommended keeping some kind of U.S. military force in the country, and most defense officials believed that would happen.

There were months of negotiations this year, but in the end, the talks failed. The big obstacle, Iraq wouldn't grant U.S. troops immunity. General Dempsey told Senators today that was a deal breaker.

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: We did not believe it was appropriate, prudent to leave servicemen and women without judicial protections in a country that still had the challenges we know it has and a very immature judicial system.

MARTIN: But Senator John McCain lambasted Secretary Panetta. His criticism, the White House never wanted the negotiations to succeed in the first place.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: And the truth is that this administration was committed to the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, and they made it happen.

DEFENSE: Senator McCain, that's just simply not true. I guess you can believe that, and I respect your beliefs.

MCCAIN: And I respect your opinion of it.

DEFENSE: But that's not...

And the outcome is exactly as predicted.

But that's not how it happened.

MCCAIN: It is how it happened. (Unintelligible).

DEFENSE: 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 for with them or what they're going to have to do.

MCCAIN: It's about our needs, as well, Mr. Secretary.

DEFENSE: This is about their country making a decision as to what is necessary here.

MARTIN: Several senators talked about the what-ifs: What if Iran keeps meddling in Iraqi politics? What if ethnic conflict turns violent the way it did at the height of the Iraq War? Who will hold things together? Are the Iraqi security forces up to it? Chairman Dempsey responded this way.

DEMPSEY: This isn't a divorce. The fact is we will be embedded with them as trainers, not only tactically but also at the institutional level. And I think that's an important way to mitigate the risk you're talking about.

MARTIN: It's unclear at this point how many U.S. troops will stay behind as trainers. Panetta said negotiations on that will continue. What is clear is that on January 1, 2012, the U.S. mission in Iraq will be led by the U.S. Department of State, not the U.S. military.

When asked whether it's a good idea to leave Iraq in the hands of 16,000 U.S. civilians protected by private security contractors, Panetta said, quote, are there risks, yes. Are there any other alternatives, no.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Washington.

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