- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 15, 2011

WASHINGTON — The U.S. military will continue limited counterterrorism training with Iraqi forces at up to 10 camps beyond the end of the year, U.S. defense officials told senators Tuesday, amid sharp exchanges over the future American role there.

The details emerged during often fiery partisan debate over whether the Obama administration’s decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of the year was driven by a purely political desire to end the war.

Senators, including Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, complained that using thousands of contractors in Iraq in place of U.S. troops beginning next year will be more costly and create a greater security risk in the country and the region.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended the withdrawal decision, and also left the door open for continued U.S. negotiations with Iraq over a force presence there.

And they disclosed more details about the make-up and duties of the U.S. Office of Security Cooperation personnel — both military and civilian — who will remain in the country. Some of those personnel, Dempsey said, will provide counterterrorism training inside the camps, but will not venture outside the camps with Iraqi security forces.

Much of the hearing focused on the U.S. failure to negotiate a small, continued troop presence with the Iraqis.

“The truth is that this administration was committed to the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and they made it happen,” McCain told Panetta during a particularly heated exchange.

Senator McCain, that’s simply not true,” Panetta shot back, adding, “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 do for them.”

U.S. officials and Iraqi officials have repeatedly acknowledged that they failed to reach an agreement that would give U.S. forces in Iraq legal immunity. U.S. military leaders said they would not leave troops in the country without legal protections, particularly considering the country’s immature judicial system.

“If you’re going to engage in those kind of (counterterrorism) operations,” Panetta said, “you absolutely have to have immunities.”

When negotiations collapsed, President Barack Obama announced last month that the remaining U.S. forces would leave Iraq, consistent with the agreement reached by Obama’s Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, and the Baghdad government.

U.S. officials have signaled that they may move at least 4,000 of the troops to Kuwait.

On Tuesday, Dempsey said he believes the U.S. should have ground, air and naval forces that rotate in and out of Kuwait, including some number of combat troops.

Dempsey also noted that the Office of Security Cooperation will operate out of 10 Iraqi bases, where they will be able to provide equipping and training assistance, such as when new F-16 fighter jets are delivered, or on the use of tanks at a gunnery range in Besmaya, southeast of Baghdad.

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