In Iraq, Panetta Says US Will Maintain “Enduring Presence“

Baghdad – Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta pressured Prime Minister Nuri Kamal-al Maliki of Iraq on Monday to tell the United States whether he wanted some American troops to remain in Iraq into 2012, although Mr. Panetta predicted that the United States military would have an “enduring presence” for many years in the Middle East.

“I’d like things to move a lot faster here, frankly, in terms of the decision-making process,” Mr. Panetta told a gathering of American troops as he expressed exasperation with the Iraqi government and pushed Mr. Maliki to make a key government appointment. “Do they want us to stay, don’t they want us to stay? Do they want to get a minister of defense or don’t they want to get a minister of defense?” He concluded, “Dammit, make a decision.”

Making his first visit to Iraq as defense secretary, Mr. Panetta also said flatly — before he and a Pentagon spokesman qualified his remarks — that United States forces were in Iraq because of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. That was part of the narrative advanced by the Bush White House, particularly Vice President Dick Cheney, but it is now widely dismissed.

“The reason you guys are here is because on 9/11 the United States got attacked, and 3,000 not just Americans, but 3,000 human beings got killed, innocent human beings, because of Al Qaeda,” Mr. Panetta told Army troops at Camp Victory, the sprawling American military base in Baghdad.

Later, Mr. Panetta told reporters that he was not speaking of the reasons for the 2003 American-led invasion but rather was referring to events afterward.

“I wasn’t saying, you know, the invasion, or going into the issues or the justification of that,” Mr. Panetta said. “It was more the fact that we really had to deal with Al Qaeda here.”

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In the run-up to the 2003 war, Bush administration officials repeatedly cited ties between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, but a government investigation found no meaningful operational link between the two. After the invasion, Al Qaeda fighters did pour into Iraq to launch attacks on the American military.

Doug Wilson, a Pentagon spokesman traveling with Mr. Panetta, described Mr. Panetta as a “very plain-spoken defense secretary” who he said was not getting into the arguments over Iraq from 2002 and 2003. “I don’t think he’s going down that rabbit hole,” Mr. Wilson said.

Mr. Panetta arrived in Iraq on Sunday from Afghanistan, and his visit was not announced in advance. He was scheduled to meet on Monday with Mr. Maliki. Defense officials said that Mr. Panetta’s top priority in the meeting with Mr. Maliki — aside from pressing for a decision about American troops — was to urge him to go after Shiite militias that the United States says are using Iranian-supplied weapons to attack American forces in Iraq.

Mr. Panetta, who warned about the Iranian weapons on Sunday, intensified his words on Monday. Last month, 15 American troops died in Iraq, nine in attacks by rockets supplied by Iran, American officials said. The attacks made June the bloodiest month for American combat-related fatalities since June 2008.

“We cannot just simply stand back and allow this to continue to happen,” Mr. Panetta said. “I assure you that this is not something we’re just going to walk away from. We’re going to take this on, straight on.”

Mr. Panetta said that American forces were already responding to the threat “unilaterally,” implying that they were taking offensive action on their own, without Iraqi troops alongside. American military officials would not specify what he meant.

All 46,000 remaining United States troops in Iraq are scheduled to leave by the end of this year under an agreement between the two countries, but both Iraqi and American military commanders believe that some American forces should stay beyond 2011. Few Iraqi politicians are willing to admit publicly that they need American help, but Obama administration officials say the United States will consider staying only if the Iraqis ask.

The subject is particularly sensitive because the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr helped the current government come to power. Mr. Sadr has said many times that the United States should leave immediately.

Mr. Panetta’s remarks demanding that Mr. Maliki make a decision were the strongest on the subject to date from the Obama administration. American officials say that if the Iraqis wait too long to make a formal request, it will come too late, given the complexity of military withdrawals. Once the Americans withdraw completely, they say, it would be expensive and difficult politically in both the United States and Iraq to bring them back.

This article, “In Iraq Panetta Says US Will Maintain 'Enduring Presence',” originally appeared in The New York Times.