Iraq agrees to extend US military role: Panetta

U.S. soldiers with the 3rd Armored Cavalry
Regiment participate in a patrol in July
2011 in Iraq
© AFP/Getty Images/File Spencer Platt

AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) – The United States said Friday Iraq had agreed to keeping US troops in the country beyond a year-end deadline for withdrawal, but Baghdad insisted the issue is still under negotiation.

In an interview with two US newspapers, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that the Iraqis had made up their mind to extend the presence of American troops.

“My view is that they finally did say, ‘Yes,'” Panetta was quoted as saying by Stars and Stripes.

Iraqi political leaders announced on August 3 that they would open talks with the United States over a possible training mission after 2011 but have yet to say definitively if some American troops would remain.

Under the terms of a 2008 security agreement, all of the roughly 46,000 US 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 promptly rejected Panetta’s account.

“We have not yet agreed on the issue of keeping training forces,” Ali Mussawi, media advisor to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, told AFP after Panetta’s remarks.

“The negotiations are ongoing, and these negotiations have not been finalized,” he said.

The US military presence remains a delicate political issue in Iraq, and anti-US Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has warned of “war” if American forces stay beyond 2011.

Both US and Iraqi military officers, however, acknowledge Iraq’s forces need outside assistance to defend the country’s air space, ports and borders.

While negotiations continue on the details of a training mission, the planned withdrawal of US combat troops by the end of 2011 will proceed, Panetta said.

“We will fulfill the commitment that we are going to take all of the combat forces out of Iraq,” Panetta said.

Shortly after taking over as Pentagon chief on July 1, Panetta voiced frustration in a visit to Baghdad, urging Iraqi leaders to “Dammit, make a decision” about a future mission for US troops.

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He said Friday there was a consensus among Iraqi leaders to address US requests that the Iraqi government hammer out what type of US training force would be needed, move towards selecting a defense minister, draft a new security agreement and step up operations against Iranian-backed militants, the newspapers reported.

US officials see a training mission as a way of helping build up the Iraqi government’s armed forces while providing a peacekeeping presence that could defuse potentially volatile internal tensions.

Violence has steadily declined from a peak in 2006-2007 and US 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 attack on August 15 hit 18 cities, leaving 74 people dead and more than 300 wounded.

Although US officers believe Al-Qaeda in Iraq has been seriously weakened, they see Iranian-backed militant groups as posing a greater threat to security.

US officials allege the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Qods force is providing direct support to militant groups, including weapons and intelligence.

US Apache helicopters fired on Iranian-backed militants in an incident in June in Basra, a US military spokesman said this week.

© AFPPublished at Activist Post with license

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