BAGHDAD — A blunt and frustrated U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta expressed exasperation Monday with Iraqi indecision on whether it wants U.S. troops to stay next year. He threatened stronger U.S. action to stop Iranian-supplied weapons from killing Americans as they prepare to depart.
To reinforce the message of concern about Iran, the U.S. military gave reporters a rare look at samples of what they described as improvised rockets and other devices that have been used to target Americans in Baghdad. Iranian influence in Iraq is a key issue – diplomatically as well as militarily – for Washington as it prepares to pull out its remaining 46,000 troops.
Before meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani to push for a decision on a post-2011 U.S. troop presence, Panetta told American soldiers that the Iraqis need to act swiftly on two matters critical to their future security: naming a defense minister and deciding whether Iraqi forces need U.S. help longer than originally planned.
"Damn it, make a decision," Panetta said, adding that while Washington is getting frustrated it also recognizes that Iraq's democracy is in its infancy.
On his first visit to Iraq since succeeding Robert Gates as Pentagon chief July 1, Panetta flashed a more candid, unconventional style than his predecessor. His language was more colorful, too, sprinkling in a few curse words as he gave troops a pep talk and fielded their questions about U.S. policy.
As he has on every stop on his first overseas trip, which began last Friday, Panetta made prominent note Monday of his role as CIA director in putting together the plan that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May. He referred to the former al-Qaida leader as "that son of a bitch."
Panetta appeared to slip on the politics of the Iraq war, which was started by the Bush administration in March 2003 on grounds that then-ruler Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Some in the Bush White House also suggested a Saddam link to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S. by al-Qaida – a connection that President Barack Obama and other Democrats have called wrong and unproved.
Panetta told the troops he is firmly focused on ensuring that al-Qaida never again is able to attack the U.S. homeland.
"The reason you guys are here is because on 9/11 the United States got attacked," he said.
Asked later to explain that remark, he said he was not talking about the rationale for the U.S. invasion of Iraq but rather the need to go after al-Qaida in Iraq once it developed a lethal presence in the country following the invasion. He has said there are about 1,000 al-Qaida fighters in Iraq. That compares with an estimated 50-100 in Afghanistan, where bin Laden was sheltered by the Taliban until the U.S. invaded Afghanistan.
Panetta said a top priority in his Iraq meetings was pressing Baghdad to take more aggressive action against the Shiite insurgent groups that have been using what the U.S. insists are Iranian-provided weapons to attack American troops with increasing lethality.
Panetta and the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, expressed concern about an Iranian connection to the more sophisticated rockets and other projectiles being used by Shiite militiamen.
"We cannot simply stand back and allow this to continue to happen," Panetta said. "This is not something we're going to walk away from. It's something we're going to take on head on."
He said the U.S. is determined to act on its own to "go after those threats" from Iran.
"We're doing that," he said without elaborating.
Asked later in an interview with a group of American reporters what unilateral action U.S. troops had taken against the Iranian-armed militias, Austin suggested that the emphasis was on defensive actions such as patrolling the perimeter of U.S. troop positions.
"We'll do what we need to protect ourselves," Austin said. Pressed to say whether Panetta was correct in saying the U.S. was acting unilaterally against the Iranian problem, he said, "I won't discuss our operations."
Three rockets fired from a mainly Shiite neighborhood hit Baghdad's Green Zone during Panetta's visit, Iraqi police said. No casualties were reported. At the time, Panetta was at the U.S. military's Camp Victory on the capital's western outskirts. The Green Zone is a heavily secured district in central Baghdad that is home to the U.S. and other embassies as well as Iraqi government offices.
Austin said the insurgents are getting better at targeting their Iranian-supplied weapons. They include a rocket-assisted munition that first appeared as a threat to U.S. troops in Baghdad in 2008 and has resurfaced this year. Two attacks using that weapon in June killed a total of nine U.S. soldiers, according to Maj. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, the senior U.S. military spokesman in Iraq.
"We're seeing better-aimed volleys of these things in recent days," Austin said. "They are getting closer and closer to perfecting that."
Panetta raised the issue of an extended U.S. troop presence and the problem of Iranian-supplied weapons for insurgents in separate meetings later Monday with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani, according to Panetta spokesman Doug Wilson. The spokesman said both Iraqi leaders understood the urgency of both issues.
Wilson said Panetta spelled out the practical reasons why he needs to know soon whether Iraq will ask for a U.S. troop extension, and he made clear that until the Iraqis ask for a change, the U.S. will proceed with its current plan to pull out all troops.
"We are neither pressuring nor pleading for" a longer U.S. troop presence, Wilson said. The U.S. just wants an Iraqi decision, he said.
Hours after the meeting, al-Maliki's office released a statement that gave no indication whether Iraq ultimately would ask U.S. troops to stay. However, he maintained that Iraq's military is able to counter threats alone and said any request for American forces to stay would require approval of the country's main political blocs and parliament.
"The ability of the Iraqi armed forces are developing and have improved," al-Maliki said in the statement. "Now, they're capable of reaching any target that poses a threat to the stability and security of Iraq."
The Obama administration believes Iraq needs a residual U.S. military presence beyond 2011, when virtually all U.S. troops are scheduled to depart. Many Iraqi leaders agree, but they've been unwilling to make a formal request. The current agreement that requires U.S. troops to leave by Dec. 31 was negotiated by the Bush administration and Maliki's government in 2008.
Austin, the general who is overseeing the planned final withdrawal, told reporters that he would not publicly discuss a timetable for their pullout because it would provide insurgents with details that might jeopardize U.S. lives. But he stressed that the drawdown will be so far along by fall that it would be difficult to accommodate an Iraqi request to stay longer.
"As you get deeper into the fall it gets harder and harder," he said. "It's evident to everyone that when you get into the October-November timeframe you're really taking things apart that are very difficult to put back together."
Associated Press reporter Lara Jakes contributed to this story from Baghdad.
Robert Burns can be reached at http://twitter.com/robertburnsAP