UPDATED JULY 11, 2:08 P.M.
BAGHDAD – About an hour after rockets struck Baghdad's fortified Green Zone on Monday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta pressed Iraqi leaders to decide whether they want U.S. troops to stay beyond Dec. 31.
“I’d like things to move a lot faster here, frankly. ...,” he told U.S. troops at Camp Victory, before he headed into Baghdad for meetings with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani.
Talabani announced this weekend that in the next two weeks, an Iraqi committee will study whether to ask the U.S. military to stay past 2011, when a 3-year old bilateral security agreement expires.
Panetta’s frustration was clear in his message: “Do you want us to stay, don’t you want us to stay? ...Dammit, make a decision.”
After Panetta met with the Iraqi leaders, defense officials told reporters that the Iraqis “clearly understood” the message of urgency, which Assistant Secretary of Defense Doug Wilson summarized as, “We are neither pressuring nor pleading for U.S. troops to remain here. … We are continuing to withdraw our forces. …. Time is running out.”
U.S officials have made it clear they could keep forces here – for “years,” former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in April –but insist that they are not asking for an extension.
“Quite frankly, you know, we’re not pushing the Iraqis to ask us for help,” Gen. Lloyd Austin, U.S. Forces Iraq commanding general, said Monday. “All we’re saying is, if you think you are going to ask for help, knowing that sooner is better for us.”
The general has a plan for “a measured series of movements” to drawdown the roughly 46,000 troops deployed here this fall. Defense officials have said that would start around September. Austin would not reveal specifics, but added, “The danger increases as you get smaller.”
“I won’t set a specific date,” he said, “... but it’s intuitive that, you know, you get into the October/November timeframe, you really begin to take things apart that are hard to put back together.”
The U.S. has reduced bases from 92 to 57 since Operation Iraqi Freedom ended Sept. 1 and has shipped home 1 million items, with 1 million more to go. Reversing that process at the last hour, or in 2012 if Iraq asked, would be much more costly.
Panetta and Austin said there is more work to be done neutralizing militants and bringing opponents into the political process.
Defense officials said Panetta pressed the Iraqis to pick a defense minister; the government's minority bloc was given the role to nominate in an power-sharing agreement with al-Maliki.
The wait is frustrating but, Panetta said, “the nature of democracy” on display was reassuring, compared to other countries in the region.
“This damn country has a helluva lot of resources” to develop their economy and protect their people, he said. “I think there’s a lot of hope here.”
But the morning’s rocket attacks, which USF-I officials said struck no U.S. facilities and appear to have caused no casualties, are the latest indicator that insurgent groups still have the ability to strike spectacular blows to Iraqis and Americans.
For the second day in a row, Panetta’s first question from troops was about the alarming supply of weapons coming into the country from Iran.
“We are concerned about Iran and weapons they are providing to extremists here in Iraq,” he said. “In June, we lost a helluva lot of Americans, as a result of those attacks. And we cannot just simply stand back and allow this to continue.”
Panetta said the U.S. must “put pressure on the Iraqis” to “go after” Shia militants with Iranian-supplied weapons before they strike, and in his most direct language yet, said that the U.S. also should “do what we have to do unilaterally.”
“I want to assure you that this is not something that we’re just going to walk away from,” he said. “We’re going to take this on, straight on.”
Austin would not discuss whether U.S. troops were involved in any such operations now.
The most renowned anti-U.S. Shiite leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, said Saturday that he would not restart the Mahdi Army if the U.S. stays past Dec. 31, as threatened in April, but would keep active the Promised Day Brigade.
“He really has been all over the page,” Austin said, dismissing al-Sadr’s comments and influence since he left Iraq more than four years ago. “This country’s moved on a bit.”
At his second troop talk of this trip, Panetta continued to say that the U.S. remains focused on defeating al-Qaida, but added, “The reason you guys are here is because on 9/11 the United States got attacked.”
It has been widely reported, however, that there is no evidence Iraq was behind the 2001 attacks, and al-Qaida only flooded into this country in response to the U.S. invasion in 2003.
Panetta later clarified to reporters that he meant al-Qaida had “developed a presence here.”
He told troops it was “our responsibility” to maintain a strong forward counterterrorism presence in the region to check the spread of al-Qaida and other groups, especially during the recent turmoil.
“There’s no question we’re going to have to maintain a presence,” he said, to provide direction with continued military and special operations elements.
“We’re going to be around for a helluva long time, making sure that the world goes right.”