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Media Availability with Secretary Panetta

By The Pentagon, The Pentagon - October 21, 2011

                 SECRETARY LEON PANETTA:  Today represents in many ways a real turning point from the last 10 years of war, the end of the U.S. combat presence in Iraq by the end of the year, which both the president and Prime Minister Maliki spoke to earlier, and the likely end of the NATO mission.  I understand that there's been a proposal to bring that mission to a close by the end of this month, with probably a two-week transition period to take place. 

                So we are -- we are seeing two missions in some ways coming to closure.  Let me speak to both of them, if I could, just briefly. 

                First on Iraq.  The United States and Iraq affirm today that the U.S. will fulfill its commitment under the current U.S.-Iraq security agreement, an agreement that was worked out in the past administration and which this administration committed to fully enforce.   And as a result, pursuant to that agreement, we are withdrawing all of our military forces, our combat forces, by the end of 2011.  Today's announcement means that at the end of this year, there will be a clear end to the U.S. combat presence in Iraq.  

                I wanted to take this opportunity, as secretary of defense, to express my profound gratitude and, I believe, the gratitude of the nation and appreciation to our men and women in uniform who have served in Iraq since this war began in 2003, the literally hundreds of thousands who served in Iraq, and as we know, 4,500 were killed in action and some 32,000 were wounded.  

                Our troops and their families have borne a very heavy burden during more than eight years of war and have paid a great price.  And yet I think it's a testament to their strength and to their resilience that we are now able to bring this war to a responsible end.  Thanks to their service and thanks to their sacrifice, Iraq is ready to govern and defend itself and to contribute to the security and stability of a very vital part of the world.  

                We will now turn our full attention to pursuing a long-term strategic partnership with Iraq that's based on mutual interests and mutual respect.  Our goal will be to establish a normal relationship, similar to others in the region that focus on meeting security and training needs for Iraq.  

                Iraq's a sovereign nation that must determine how to secure its own future, and we will help them in every way to do that.  Going forward, we will work closely with the Iraqi government and their armed forces to help them continue to build a stronger and more prosperous country. 

                Let me briefly talk about Libya.  Libya -- our commander, General [sic] Stavridis, the NATO commander, has recommended to NATO that this mission be brought to a close by October 31 and allow for two weeks for a continuing effort to transition out of that mission.  And obviously, we're awaiting NATO's final decision with regards to that recommendation. 

                This has been a successful mission by NATO, by all of NATO's members and by NATO's partners as well.  And I want to take this opportunity again to commend all of the forces that were involved in this mission.  I had the opportunity last trip to visit with our NATO allies to talk about the effort in Libya and to actually look at the operations that were developed in Naples to try to carry out that mission.  And this was -- this was not an easy effort.  It involved a great deal of cooperation, a great deal of partnership.  But the fact was that working together, they accomplished this mission that Gadhafi is no longer, and finally Libya belongs to the Libyan people. 

                I also want to confirm for you that in the end, as a symbol of that partnership, it was -- it was a U.S. drone combined with the other NATO planes that fired on the convoy.   And that, I think, is a reflection of the -- of the partnership that came together in NATO and in Libya. 

                And finally, let me talk a little bit about the trip that we're taking here.  This is my first trip to Asia as secretary of defense, although I've obviously gone there a number of times in other capacities.  As a member of Congress, I visited Japan and other areas in the vicinity.  As chief of staff to President Clinton, I had the opportunity to go to that region as well.  As director of the CIA, obviously, I visited those key areas, Japan and Korea as well, and now as secretary of defense. 

                This is an important time to visit that region.  There are very important economic, security and diplomatic issues that are being discussed.  There's a clear message that I'm going to bring to that region, and the message is this:  that we will remain a strong Pacific force in the 21st century, and we will maintain a strong presence in the Pacific in the 21st century and be a strong force for peace and prosperity in that -- in that region. 

                Our goal is to try to strengthen the alliances that are there and to try to ensure that we build new partnerships to try to improve the security in that region.  Indonesia is providing -- the first country that I'll visit is providing great leadership in promoting regional cooperation, and we will continue to support them in that effort.  Japan, obviously, is a historic alliance, and I will indicate our continued commitment to that alliance and to working with them for stability in that region.  And South Korea, obviously, is another historic alliance that we are working in partnership with to try to protect their security, and we will continue to do that. 

                So this'll be an important trip to try to make very clear that the United States will maintain a continuing presence in this region in order to promote security in the Pacific. 

                Q:  Mr. Secretary, could I just ask you -- (inaudible) -- the first thing you brought up was Iraq, and you mentioned Iraq defending itself.  General Austin has said recently and publicly that Iraq is not capable of defending its own airspace nor its own borders.  You have no concern about leaving behind a vulnerable Iraq? 

                SEC. PANETTA:  You know, the one thing -- the one thing we have seen is that Iraq has developed a very good capability to be able to defend itself.  We've taken out now about a hundred thousand troops, and yet the level of violence has remained relatively low.  And I think that's a reflection of the fact that the Iraqis have developed a very important capability here to be able to respond to security threats within their own country.  

                Obviously, you know, I think with regards to developing a capability to provide air security, they are getting -- they're getting -- they are getting F-16s.  We will work with them to try to ensure that they have the capability and training in order to be able to use those to protect their own airspace. 

                Q:  The Office of Security Cooperation will have, what, 150 uniformed military in Iraq?

                SEC. PANETTA:  Well, you know, I guess I'd remind you that when we talk about normal relationships in that part of the world, we have a number of them in the region, and they vary in number.  For example, in Bahrain I think, you know, we've got almost 5,000 troops that we have in Bahrain.  We've got about 20 -- almost 3,000 in the UAE and about 7,500 in Qatar. 

                Q:  What will there be in Baghdad? 

                SEC. PANETTA:  And it varies, depending. 

                With regards to Baghdad and to Iraq, that remains to be worked out.  Once we've completed the reduction of the combat presence, then I think we begin a process of negotiating with them in order to determine what will be the nature of that relationship -- what kind of training do they need; what kind of security needs do they need; and how can we provide it in an effective way.  We do this in other countries.  That's what we're going to do in Iraq. 

                Q:  (Inaudible) -- agreement on an Office of Security Cooperation staffing level -- (inaudible) -- U.S. military? 

                SEC. PANETTA:  There's no -- there's no agreement with regards to numbers -- (inaudible). 

                Q:  You know, I was going to ask the same question, because Denis McDonough was talking about we will be there training.  Well, how many -- (off mic) that implies there will be a number of forces there?  And so is there -- you have said in the past, in your confirmation hearing, that you would like a presence in Iraq.  So is that still your opinion?  And if so -- (off mic)? 

                SEC. PANETTA:  I -- you know, look, one of the -- you know, the mission here was to develop an independent and sovereign Iraq that could govern and defend itself.  And so the question to ask is -- is not necessarily what we want; it's what the Iraqis want in order to be able to provide for their security.  So as we enter into, you know, a negotiating process to look at developing this normal relationship, a lot of it is going to depend on what they want, what their needs are and how we can best meet them.  But I don't think there's any question that, you know, the ability to help provide additional training, to provide some security assistance, would, I think, be able to assist them as they try to provide for their security. 

                Q:  Mr. Secretary, just to be clear then, are we saying that some additional trips beyond those mentioned today would remain in Iraq with a future agreement, or is this just sort of external rotating in, rotating out training operations? 

                SEC. PANETTA:  I think that's -- again, that's to be worked out in developing what that relationship will be for the future.  I mean, we brought the war to an end, and now the question is what kind of continuing relationship do we want to have with them?  And that's something, as I said, to be worked out based on what they believe their needs are.

                And it can vary.  I've given you numbers.  I mean, Saudi Arabia, we have 231 troops.  Other places we have larger amounts of troops.  But it's basically going to depend on what their needs are and how we can best meet them. 

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