BAGHDAD — The new defense secretary, Leon Panetta, expressed frustration on Monday in his first visit to Baghdad that squabbling Iraqi leaders had so far failed to decide whether to ask U.S. forces to stay in the country beyond 2011.
"I'd like things to move a lot faster here, frankly," Panetta told U.S. troops at Baghdad's Camp Victory. "Do you want us to stay, don't you want us to stay? Damn it, make a decision."
Yet Iraq's political impasse appeared no closer to resolution after Panetta met Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and other Iraqi leaders. Over the weekend, during heated, top-level talks that lasted about four hours on Saturday, Maliki was unable to secure the agreement of Ayad Allawi, his key political rival, for a decision on whether to ask the U.S. to keep any of the 46,000 troops still in the country — all of whom are due to depart by Dec. 31 under a security agreement.
Instead, the Iraqi leaders agreed only to meet again in two weeks and hold lower level talks in the meantime.
Some observers saw Panetta's visit as an opportunity to twist the arms of Iraq's political leaders not only to decide on the U.S. troop request but also to resolve other outstanding issues, such as filling the key civilian security posts — the defense and interior ministers.
While Panetta told U.S. troops that filling those posts was critical to Iraq's future security, it wasn't clear whether the Pentagon leader had made more than a modest effort to encourage a resolution to the standoff. Panetta didn't meet Allawi, the head of the Iraqiya coalition and the principal holdout on a range of agreements, but had only a telephone conversation with him, an Allawi spokesman told McClatchy.
Panetta also suggested that the Iraqis do more to stop mounting meddling by Iran, which U.S. military officials blame for a spike in violence against U.S. forces. In June, 14 U.S. troops were killed in Iraq — nearly all in Shiite-dominated areas — making it deadliest month of the war in three years.
"We are concerned about Iran and weapons they are providing to extremists here in Iraq," Panetta said. "In June, we lost a hell of a lot of Americans as a result of those attacks. And we cannot just simply stand back and allow this to continue."
If Iraq didn't put more pressure on Iran, the U.S. might act unilaterally, Panetta said. But he didn't specify how Iraq's fledgling democracy could sway powerful Iran, a neighbor with which it has had strong relations during Maliki's two terms.
Panetta, who became defense secretary July 1, flashed a much more colorful, off-the-cuff style than his predecessor, Robert Gates. Asked about the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May, the former CIA director boasted that the agency and the military successfully crafted a plan to "get that son of a bitch."
He raised eyebrows, however, when he told the scores of troops, "The reason you guys are here is because on 9-11 the United States got attacked." That appeared to directly contradict the views of President Barack Obama and many Democrats, who have said that al Qaida wasn't in Iraq before the 2003 U.S. invasion.
Pressed to explain his comments, Panetta later told reporters that the U.S. military was in Iraq because of the growing presence of al Qaida-inspired extremist groups.
Also Monday, Allawi, who recently returned from several weeks during which he underwent medical treatment, held a rare news conference at which he attempted to blame Maliki for the impasse over U.S. troops, saying he wasn't against an extension of the mission. He said he was still waiting to hear the judgment of Iraq's top security advisers, although it's widely known that they're generally in favor of some form of extension — possibly up to 13,000 U.S. troops for training and other purposes.
Allawi's bloc won the March 2010 elections by a hair, but he wasn't able to capitalize on the victory, and instead agreed to serve in a government headed by Maliki, provided Allawi had a dominant role in the field of security policy.
At Saturday's meeting, one of the liveliest exchanges between the two rivals, was over the long-delayed appointment of a defense minister, according to a Maliki aide. Maliki told Allawi that he'd reneged on a pledge to accept one of Maliki's choices for defense minister, Khalid al Obeidi.
Allawi ducked the question of whether the Obeidi appointment could now go forward, telling reporters only that "to go forward," the nominees for the two security posts "should come from Iraqiya."
"I don't think the meeting reached any important results or made any real progress," said the Maliki aide, Ali al Musawi.
A senior Allawi aide, Maysoun al Damlouji, said the exchange "between Allawi and Maliki was frank and direct but it didn't make them closer to each other."
Followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al Sadr, who are part of Maliki's coalition, were among the few to emerge optimistic. The Sadrists announced Sunday that they would not authorize the disarmed Mahdi Army militia to rearm — a possible concession that could allow other parties to agree on extending the invitation to U.S. troops to extend their stay.
"The lack of trust between Allawi and Maliki was obvious," said Bahaa al Araji, a leading Sadrist. "But the continuation of direct meetings will lead to solving most of the problems."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011