UPDATED AUG. 19, 5:13 P.M. EDT
WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Friday that Iraq has agreed to negotiate an extension of noncombat U.S. forces there beyond 2011.
“My view is that they finally did say, ‘Yes,’ ” he said during his first small-group press interview since taking office July 1. Panetta is the highest-ranking U.S. official to indicate this so clearly.
Six weeks ago, an exasperated Panetta urged Iraqi leaders to “Dammit, make a decision” about extending the U.S. troop presence beyond the scheduled Dec. 31 withdrawal.
Now, although Iraqi leaders have yet to make a formal request, Panetta said the Pentagon is moving forward, because there is unanimous consent among key Iraqi leaders to address U.S. demands.
Those demands include that Iraqis begin negotiating internally what type of U.S. training force they would like, begin a process to select a defense minister, craft a new Status of Forces Agreement and increase operations against Iranian-backed militants.
After word of Panetta’s comments spread, however, the Iraqi government quickly rebuffed Panetta’s claim.
“We have not yet agreed on the issue of keeping training forces," Ali Mussawi, media advisor to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, told the Agence France Press news service on Friday.
Pentagon press officials also sought to clarify Panetta’s statement.
“The Secretary was asked if there had been progress in our discussions with the Iraqi government since his visit six weeks ago,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said in a statement. “He made clear that the Iraqis have said yes to discussions about the strategic relationship beyond 2011, and what that relationship might look like.”
During negotiations with Iraq, the U.S. will continue the drawdown as planned, Panetta said.
“We will fulfill the commitment that we are going to take all of the combat forces out of Iraq.”
In other discussion, Panetta told military reporters that being in charge of the Pentagon was a “much bigger responsibility” than the CIA, where he was director for the past two years.
Talking about the budget fight, he pledged to protect “core” national security functions, including the health, retirement and family programs promised to servicemembers. The interview covered many topics:
BUDGET ISSUES: Panetta pushed back on a White House budget office memo released Thursday that said all federal agencies must make 10 percent cuts to 2013 budget requests due this fall. “They provide all kinds of guidance,” Panetta said of the Office of Management and Budget, but the cuts were not a mandate.
He said he thought the memo was an attempt to get ahead of fall budget talks. Instead, the Pentagon is primarily focused on meeting the $400 billion cuts already required by Congress.
RETIREMENT CHANGES: Panetta said he has not made any decision on an advisory board’s expected recommendations this month to consider ending pensions for military retirees who served 20 years, in favor of starting 401(k) plans. But he was poised to protect troops already in uniform. “I do not want to do anything that breaks faith with those that put their lives on the line,” he said.
At the same time, Panetta said he wants find a way for future volunteers with as few as four years in service to receive some retirement benefits.
FUTURE OP TEMPO: “We’ll continue to have a war on terrorism,” Panetta said. “I think it’s a fair bet that we’re going to continue to confront threats in the world,” maintaining a forward presence in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East and the Pacific.
“If the Arab Spring has told us anything, it’s that we’re dealing with a lot of turmoil in a very complicated part of the world. … I think we’ll have to continue to maintain that presence that we have there.”
BOOTS ON THE GROUND IN LIBYA: Panetta said unequivocally that he is not considering putting any American boots on the ground in Libya should Moammar Gadhafi’s regime fall.
“No, not at all,” he said. There has been speculation that the U.S. and NATO could send some type of training force to help rebel opposition forces establish a professionalized security force. Panetta said that effort would fall to the larger diplomatic governance effort, which he sees as a function for the State Department and other NATO governments.
CREDIBLE THREATS FOR 9/11: Panetta said he has seen no new intelligence indicating an immediate threat to the United States on the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Intelligence gathered from Osama bin Laden’s compound indicated the al-Qaida leader wanted the organization to hit the U.S. on that date, he said. “But I have to tell you, beyond that, I don’t know of any specific intelligence that represents, you know, kind of immediate threats on 9/11.”