Senators, defense leaders spar over Iraq

WASHINGTON (AP) — 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, R-Ariz., 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.

Senators said they were concerned that pulling all U.S. forces out of Iraq will leave the country open to meddling by Iran that could destabilize the fledgling democracy.

Pentagon leaders agreed, saying that the U.S. has told the Iraqis they must continue to battle Iranian-backed extremist groups.

And they said the U.S. will continue to have a broad military presence in the region.

Under current plans, there would be about 16,000 U.S. U.S. embassy personnel in Iraq, and a large portion of those would be civilian contractors handling security.

The U.S. currently has about 24,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, but the bulk of those troops will be out of the country by mid-December.

The hearing comes as the Pentagon and lawmakers wrangle over budget cuts.

Panetta on Monday offered a litany of drastic steps triggered by the automatic, across-the-board cuts if Congress' supercommittee fails to come up with a $1.2 trillion deficit-cutting plan by Nov. 23.

If the panel stumbles, the Pentagon faces some $500 billion in reductions in projected spending over 10 years — on top of the $450 billion already under way.

In a budget letter to senators, Panetta said the automatic cuts would add up to a 23 percent reduction in the first year alone of 2013. After a decade, "we would have the smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest number of ships since 1915, and the smallest Air Force in its history," the Pentagon chief said.

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