Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speak before giving testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Nov. 15, 2011. (DoD photo by Erin Kirk-Cuomo)
WASHINGTON (November 15, 2011) — Iraq and its forces are prepared to cope with the security challenges they will face after U.S. troops withdraw, Defense Department leaders told Congress today.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described their views on those challenges in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“Today, thanks to innumerable sacrifices from all involved, Iraq is governing itself,” Panetta said. “It’s a sovereign nation. It’s an emerging source of stability in a vital part of the world. And as an emerging democracy, it is capable of [addressing] its own security needs.”
The secretary said the United States seeks to continue a relationship with Iraq based on mutual respect and interests.
With the State Department set to lead U.S. efforts in Iraq after troops withdraw by Dec. 31, a structure remains that allows the United States to continue assisting the Iraqi government, Panetta said.
The State Department-led Office of Security Cooperation will include a limited number of U.S. military personnel assigned to the embassy, he said, and the U.S.-Iraq strategic framework agreement provides “a platform for future cooperation in counterterrorism, in naval and air defense, and in joint exercises.”
The secretary said countering extremism, reducing internal friction and closing gaps in the country’s external defense capability will be key challenges for the Iraqi government.
Al-Qaida in Iraq and Iranian-backed militant groups remain capable of planning and carrying out periodic high-profile attacks, Panetta acknowledged. But those groups, he added, lack support among the Iraqi people, and Iraq’s counterterrorism forces are among the most capable in the region.
“We will be in a position to continue to assist them in building these capabilities through our Office of Security Cooperation,” the secretary said.
Conflict among Sunni, Shiia, Kurd and other political blocs likewise will pose a challenge, Panetta said.
“As in any democracy, Iraq deals with a range of competing agendas,” the secretary noted. “But the solutions to these challenges lie in the political – not the military – realm.”
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey and his team, Panetta said, are working with the Iraqis in maintaining dialogue and sustaining cooperation along the Arab-Kurd elements in the north. And Iraqi forces are developing the systems and expertise they’ll need for a robust external defense, the secretary noted, though they will need assistance in this area, including logistics and air defense.
“That will be an important focus of the Office of Security Cooperation,” Panetta said. “The recent decision by the Iraqis to purchase U.S. F-16s, part of a $7.5 billion foreign military sales program, demonstrates Iraq’s commitment to build up its external defense capabilities and maintain a lasting [military-to-military] training relationship with the United States.”
Panetta cited Iran’s regional ambitions as another challenge Iraq faces.
“Tehran has sought to weaken Iraq by trying to undermine its political processes and by facilitating violence against innocent Iraqi civilians and against American troops,” the secretary said.
Those actions, coupled with Iran’s growing ballistic missile capability and efforts to advance its nuclear program, he added, represent “a significant threat to Iraq, the broader region and U.S. interests.”
The strong and self-reliant Iraq he sees emerging, Panetta said, has no desire to be dominated by Iran or anyone else, and the United States and regional partners are committed to countering Iran’s destabilizing efforts.
“We’ve made very clear that we’re committed to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” the secretary said. “And while we have strengthened our regional security relationship in recent years, Tehran’s destabilizing activities have only further isolated that regime.”
Panetta said the U.S. message to allies, friends and potential adversaries in the Middle East region is clear.
“We have more than 40,000 American troops who remain in the Gulf region. We’re not going anywhere,” Panetta said. “And we will continue to reassure our partners, deter aggressors and counter those seeking to create instability.”
Iraq has come through a difficult period in its history, he said, and it has emerged stronger with a government that is largely representative of, and increasingly responsive to, the needs of its people.
“This outcome was never certain, especially during the war’s darkest days,” the secretary added. “It is a testament to the strength and resilience of our troops that we helped the Iraqi people reverse a desperate situation, and provided them the time and space to foster the institutions of a representative government.”
More than a million Americans served in Iraq. More than 32,000 have been wounded, and nearly 4,500 service members “made the ultimate sacrifice for this mission,” Panetta said.
Largely as a result of their efforts, he said, “Iraq is 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.”
Dempsey told the committee he took command of the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad in June 2003, and nine months later the unit’s effort to establish security, develop Iraqi forces, restore services and encourage Iraqis to take control of their own destiny “was at risk.”
Dempsey recounted that the division’s tour of duty was extended by four months to suppress an uprising in Iraq’s southern provinces, and that as commander, he visited most of the organization’s smaller units to explain to troops why it was important they remain.
“To their great and everlasting credit, to a man and woman, they recognized the importance of our mission, they embraced the challenge, and they did what their nation asked them to do,” Dempsey said. “As I look back, I think I’ll remember most the toughness, the resolve and the resilience of America’s sons and daughters and their families in those early days. Sometimes actually, always, their character shines through in the toughest of times.”
Discussion about the future of post-conflict Iraq requires some context, the chairman said.
“In 1991, I left my family to drive Iraq out of Kuwait,” the chairman said. “In 2003, I left my family to drive Saddam Hussein out of Baghdad. And in 2011, we’re talking about establishing a normal security relationship with Iraq.”
The amount of American blood and treasure invested in Iraq has created a bond going forward, Dempsey added.
“Our futures are inextricably linked,” he said.
The United States must continue to support Iraqi security forces’ development and the diplomatic effort to demonstrate commitment to Iraq’s nascent democracy, the chairman said.
Dempsey said that while he is concerned about Iraq’s future, American forces are “proud to have been part of this effort to provide Iraq the opportunities it now has.”
After the troop withdrawal outlined in the 2008 U.S.-Iraq security agreement is complete, the general said, a further series of negotiations will address areas where the United States can continue assistance to Iraq.
“We’re eager to be part of the effort to determine how we can continue to partner with them on issues of common interest for the future,” Dempsey said.