WASHINGTON — Leon Panetta, President Barack Obama's choice to head the Pentagon, predicted on Thursday that Iraq will ask the United States to keep some U.S. forces in that country beyond year's end, the current departure date.
In testimony at his Senate confirmation hearing, the current CIA director and former Clinton White House budget chief parried questions on wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and addressed concerns that financial pressures will mean deep defense cuts.
Panetta said that Moammar Gadhafi's rule in Libya is weakening and that Pakistan is a frustrating but crucial ally in the terrorism fight. He offered few specifics, however, on how many of the 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan should be withdrawn beginning in July. He concurred with Obama's promise of a significant drawdown but also said the decision should be "conditions based."
After the latest violence in Iraq, Panetta said he expected Baghdad to ask for U.S. troops to stay beyond their scheduled Dec. 31 departure. There are currently about 47,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, none in a declared combat role. Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee that there are about 1,000 al-Qaida insurgents in Iraq and the situation is fragile. "I believe that we should take whatever steps are necessary to make sure that we protect whatever progress we've made there," he said.
Eight years after the American invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, the United States has lost more than 4,400 lives in Iraq, with more than 32,000 wounded. The war has cost billions of dollars.
On a glide path to confirmation, Panetta would replace Gates, who's retiring June 30 after 4½ years in the Bush and Obama administrations.
Panetta also said that any defense budget cuts would not be limited to the military and would extend to homeland security, intelligence and the State Department.
"I do not believe, based on my long experience in government and working with budgets, that we have to choose between strong fiscal discipline and strong national defense," he said.