President Obama’s choice for defense secretary, Leon Panetta, told the Senate on Thursday he would support leaving some U.S. troops in Iraq if the Baghdad government makes a formal request to keep the forces in the country after the deadline for a pullout.
During a hearing on his nomination before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mr. Panetta, currently CIA director, said it would be wise to meet any request from Iraqi leaders for troops to remain in Iraq past theDec. 31, 2011, deadline for their departure under a 2008 U.S.-Iraq security plan.
“I believe that if Prime Minister [Nouri al] Maliki and the Iraqi government request that we maintain a presence there, that ought to be seriously considered by the president,” he said in response to a question from Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican.
“There are 1,000 al Qaeda still in Iraq. We saw an attack just the other day. I believe we should take whatever steps are necessary to be sure we protect the progress we’ve made there,” Mr. Panetta said.
Mr. Panetta is expected to win confirmation to succeed Robert M. Gates as defense secretary. At the hearing, several senators expressed support for Mr. Panetta, who is widely credited for helping lead the successful hunt and killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, told Mr. Panetta, “I cannot wait to vote for you.”
On Libya, Mr. Panetta said there were signs Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi was cracking under international pressure. But he also reaffirmed earlier statements that no U.S. troops would be sent on the ground to the conflict.
When asked whether he knew anyone in a position of authority who wanted to send ground forces to Libya, Mr. Panetta laughed and said, “I haven’t met anybody yet.”
Leaders of Iraq’s military have publicly asked the United States to stay past the Dec. 31 deadline. U.S. officials have said publicly that Iraq has no capabilities to defend its skies without the U.S. Air Force, for example.
On the other hand, key members of Mr. Maliki’s coalition, such as Shiite cleric and militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, have threatened to leave the ruling coalition if the government agrees to U.S. troops staying on.
In written answers to questions from the committee, Mr. Panetta stated: “Iraqi leaders and U.S. officials have acknowledged that there will be gaps in Iraqi security forces’ capabilities after 2011, especially in external defense.”
In August, the United States formally ended the military’s combat mission in Iraq and withdrew forces below 50,000 troops. U.S. Air Force jets continued to patrol Iraqi skies, and the CIA continues to assist Iraq’s security services in counterterrorism training and operations.
In October, the State Department is scheduled to take over reconstruction activities in Iraq from the Pentagon.
Mr. Panetta declined during the hearing to say whether he supports establishing benchmarks to gauge whether troops should be withdrawn from Afghanistan, a policy used by the George W. Bush administration in Iraq.
Mr. Panetta also declined to provide specifics on how many troops would be leaving Afghanistan next month, when the withdrawal of troops from the country is scheduled to begin.