BALI, Indonesia (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta expressed confidence Sunday that Iraq would be able to deal with any threat from Iran-backed militants, even after America completely withdraws its troops this year.
President Barack Obama announced Friday that all remaining American troops would leave Iraq by the end of 2011, keeping a campaign promise, after Washington and Baghdad failed to reach agreement on maintaining perhaps thousands of troops as trainers, in part as a buttress against Iranian influence.
But Panetta said Iraq would be able to handle itself and noted that America would still have some 40,000 troops in the region — not counting those 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.”
In Iraq, where the U.S. force peaked at about 190,000 during the height of President George W. Bush’s troop surge in 2007, almost 4,500 U.S. troops have died and the war has cost U.S. taxpayers over $700 billion in military spending alone.
Iraq still faces a stubborn Sunni Islamist insurgency tied to al Qaeda and rival Shi’ite militias, although violence there is down sharply from the sectarian slaughter of 2006-07.
Over the summer, Panetta and other U.S. officials accused Iran of backing a wave of militant attacks that made June the deadliest month for U.S. troops since 2008.
“I should point out we’re going to maintain, as we do now, a significant force in that region of the world,” Panetta said, pointing to some 23,000 troops in Kuwait alone. “So we will always have a force that will be present and will deal with any threats from Iran.”
Panetta has not ruled out a future troop presence of some kind in Iraq, saying Friday that the United States would start negotiating with Iraq about future training assistance next year. Still, he left open the possibility that — beyond a small number of troops assigned to the embassy mission — U.S. military trainers might merely rotate in and out.
Even without soldiers, the U.S. presence will remain substantial. U.S. officials say the embassy in Baghdad, an imposing, fortified complex by the Tigris River in Baghdad’s Green Zone, will be the largest in the world.
Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Ruth Pitchford