Pentagon, Iraq cautious on US role after 2011

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta suggested that

Iraq had agreed to keep American troops in the country beyond a 2011 deadline, but Baghdad insisted the issue was still under

negotiation.

In an interview with two U.S. newspapers published Friday, Panetta said the Iraqis appeared to have made up their mind to extend the presence of American troops beyond the year-end withdrawal deadline. “My view is that they finally did say, ‘Yes,’” Panetta told Stars and Stripes and the Military Times. Iraqi political leaders announced on Aug. 3 that they would open talks with the U.S. over a possible training mission after 2011 without saying definitively if some American troops would remain.

But the Pentagon later on Friday sought to play down the defense chief’s remarks, saying he was merely noting that Baghdad was open to discussing a possible U.S. military role. “The secretary was asked if there had been progress in our discussions with the Iraqi government since his visit six weeks ago.

“He made clear that the Iraqis have said yes to discussions about the strategic relationship beyond 2011, and what that relationship might look like,” spokesman George Little said in an email. Under the terms of a 2008 security agreement, all of the roughly 46,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq must pull out by the end of the year unless both countries forge a new deal.

In Baghdad, the Iraqi premier’s office said no decision had been made on the future of U.S. troops. “We have not yet agreed on the

issue of keeping training forces,” Ali Mussawi, media advisor

to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, said after Panetta’s remarks. “The negotiations are ongoing, and these negotiations have not been finalized,” he said.

The U.S. military presence remains a delicate political issue in Iraq, and anti-U.S. Shiite cleric

Moqtada al-Sadr has warned of “war” if American forces stay beyond 2011. Both U.S. and Iraqi military officers, however, acknowledge Iraq’s forces need outside assistance to defend the country’s air space, ports and borders.

Violence has steadily declined from a peak in 2006-2007 and U.S. commanders have touted the trend as a sign that Iraqi security forces are capable of keeping the peace. But al-Qaeda-linked insurgents are still able to inflict bloodshed. The latest major attack on Aug. 15 hit 18 cities, leaving 74 people dead and more than 300 wounded.