October 23, 2011 / 3:00 PM / in 8 years

Clinton warns Iran not to exploit US Iraq pullout

* U.S. to maintain strong security relationship with Iraq

* Panetta confident Iraq can handle Iran-backed militants

* Ahmadinejad sees no change in Iran’s relations with Iraq

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON, Oct 23 (Reuters) - The United States pledged on Sunday to maintain a strong security relationship with Iraq for years to come despite the scheduled pullout of all U.S. troops and warned Iran not to try to exploit the situation.

“No one should miscalculate America’s resolve and commitment to helping support the Iraqi democracy,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on the NBC program “Meet the Press.” “We have paid too high a price to give the Iraqis this chance.”

No one should doubt American commitment to Iraq, in particular its neighbor Iran, Clinton added.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta expressed confidence Iraq would be able to deal with any threat from Iran-backed militants after the U.S. withdrawal.

After months of negotiations with officials in Baghdad failed to reach an agreement to keep possibly thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq as trainers, President Barack Obama announced on Friday he would stick to plans to pull out the remaining force of 40,000 American troops by year’s end.

Iran already is at odds with Washington and other Western governments over its nuclear ambitions and Clinton warned Tehran against trying to exert its influence in Iraq. Like Iran, Iraq is a majority Shi’ite Muslim country. But the two neighbors have engaged in periodic hostilities for decades.

“Iran would be badly miscalculating if they did not look at the entire region and all of our presence in many countries in the region,” she said on the CNN program “State of the Union” from Uzbekistan.

U.S. troops led an invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The Pentagon said there have been more than 4,400 U.S. military deaths in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.

Clinton, speaking on the program “Fox News Sunday,” said Iraq “is a sovereign, independent nation with whom we have very good relations. And we expect to have a continuing strong security relationship for many years to come.”

‘ROBUST DIPLOMATIC PRESENCE’

“What we’ve agreed to is a support and training mission similar to what we have in countries from Jordan to Colombia. And we will be working with the Iraqis. We will also have a very robust diplomatic presence,” Clinton said.

Clinton told ABC’s “This Week,” “So, no, we’re not going to have bases in Iraq but we have bases elsewhere.”

Panetta said Iraq would be able to handle itself and noted that America would still have some 40,000 troops in the region, including 23,000 troops in Kuwait. That does not count U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan.

“Iraq itself has developed an effective force to be able to deal with those threats,” Panetta told reporters after meeting with Southeast Asian defense ministers on the Indonesian resort island of Bali.

“And what we’ve seen in the past when we had concerns about what Iran was doing was that Iraq itself conducted operations against those Shia extremist groups. ... They did it in conjunction with our support and we thought they did a great job. And they’ll continue to do that,” he said.

In a CNN interview aired on Sunday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said he did not foresee any changes in Iran’s relationship with Iraq following the U.S. troop pullout.

“The government of Iraq, the parliament, we have a very good relationship with all of them,” Ahmadinejad told CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS.” “... And we have deepened our ties day by day.”

Republicans pushed their criticism of Obama’s decision to remove all troops, which they argue could embolden Iran.

“He ended Iraq poorly,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a prominent Republican voice on foreign policy and military affairs, told “Fox News Sunday,” faulting Obama for failing to complete a deal with Iraq to keeping U.S. troops inside that country as trainers after the end of the year. Iraq balked at granting such U.S. troops immunity as Washington had requested.

“The Iraqis have no air force,” Graham said. “They have no intelligence gathering capability. They ... need counterterrorism assistance. There are missions that ... only we can do. The Iraqis, in my view, were open-minded to this. This was a failure by the Obama administration to close the deal.”

Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Bali; Editing by Bill Trott

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