Panetta, Dempsey: U.S.-Iraq Partnership Will Continue

WASHINGTON, Nov. 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 Army 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 that 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.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)