By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
BAGHDAD, July 10, 2011 – Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta arrived here today for meetings with senior Iraqi and American officials.
It is his first trip to the country since becoming defense secretary nine days ago, and he has a range of issues he will bring up, he said during a short news conference with reporters during his first stop in Afghanistan.
“There is concern with security there and what is being done to stop the Iranian weapons from coming into Iraq” he said. In June, the United States lost 15 troops, the highest number in two years.
The secretary will also raise governance questions, he said.
“We’re now more than a year since the elections and we still don’t have a minister of defense or a minister of the interior,” Panetta said. While the security services are functioning, it is the U.S. opinion that the absence of leadership in those two ministries is not helpful in the current security environment, he said.
Panetta will also point out that the United States is withdrawing all forces from Iraq by the end of the year. If the Iraqis want some sort of American follow-on force, they have to make a formal request.
Panetta will be meeting President Jalal Talibani and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He will also meet with Kurdish President Massoud Barzani.
The topics will include reaffirming the U.S. commitment to withdraw all forces by the end of the year as part of the U.S.-Iraq Security Agreement signed in 2008. He will also reaffirm that the United States is serious about a long-term relationship with Iraq over a wide swath of issues, including economic, cultural, educational and security, said a senior defense official speaking on background.
On the possibility of keeping a residual U.S. force in Iraq, Panetta will convey to the Iraqis a similar message that former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered when they visited.
“There’s some urgency for them to make that request if they are going to make it,” the senior defense official said. “It’s simply the laws of physics associated with the drawdown, the time it will take to negotiate the agreement. We’re starting to run up against the clock, and he will make that point.”
Both sides understand the Iraqi security forces have gaps in capabilities. Most notably these are command and control, intelligence fusion, logistics and sustainment. “These could be helped by a small U.S. presence,” the official said.
There is no specific number of U.S. forces that could remain in Iraq under discussion, the official said. The Iraqis must first ask for specific capabilities. “Once there are specific ‘asks’ then we can get down to brass tacks about numbers and missions,” the official said.
The secretary will also stress how important it is for Iraqi security forces to not let up in going after all insurgent and illegal militia forces.
U.S.officials are concerned about increasing support from Iran to Iraqi insurgent groups. “The key right now is to do everything possible to ensure the Iraqis within their own country are doing what they can to stop the flow of weapons, and stop the Shiia from using them,” Panetta said to Marines at Camp Dwyer in Afghanistan earlier today.
U.S.leaders expected some of the recent rise in violence in Iraq, said the senior defense official. Senior military leaders “always felt that as we came into the final period of the drawdown that militant groups across the Sunni and Shiia spectrum would try to bloody our noses on our way out to create the false narrative that they were driving us out of Iraq,” he said.
“The drawdown is based on an agreement and presidential guidance, but the insurgents and Iranian groups are trying to create the impression that we are being driven out,” the official said.
The Iranian government also may be trying to intimidate the Iraqi government as discussions for a continued U.S. presence after December 31 go on, the official said.