WASHINGTON (AP) - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Tuesday defended President Barack Obama's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq in seven weeks, but left open the possibility for continued negotiations with Baghdad over a force presence there.
In heated exchanges with Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Panetta insisted that the administration had no choice in fulfilling the agreement reached by Obama's predecessor, GOP President George W. Bush, to pull out troops by year's end. Negotiations for a small, residual force failed over Iraq's refusal to grant legal immunity to American forces.
"The bottom line is that this is not about us," Panetta told the committee. "It's about what the Iraqis want to do and the decisions that they want to make. And so we have now an independent and sovereign country that can govern and secure itself, and hopefully, make the decisions that are in the interests of its people."
Eight years of war have left more than 4,400 Americans dead and more than 32,000 wounded. Obama announced on Oct. 21 that U.S. forces would leave Iraq, fulfilling his 2008 campaign promise.
Still, Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the panel that the U.S. military will continue limited counterterrorism training with Iraqi forces at up to 10 camps around the country beyond the end of the year.
They also 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 wire with Iraqi security forces.
"This isn't a divorce," Dempsey said. "It might - it may feel that way because of the way the numbers of - the way the Iraqi government came to the decision. But the fact is, we will be embedded with them as trainers not only tactically, but also at the institutional level."
Panetta said the United State may ultimately negotiate a further presence for the U.S. military in Iraq. The Pentagon chief also pointed out that the United States has some 40,000 troops in the region, including in Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
"We're not going anywhere," Panetta said.