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 American forces in that country beyond year’s end, the current departure date.
In wide-ranging 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 Moammar Gadhafi’s rule in Libya is weakening and 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 He offered few specifics, however, on how many of the 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan should be withdrawn beginning in July.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.
“I think it’s clear to me that Iraq is considering the possibility of making a request for some kind of presence to remain there,” Panetta said, adding that it was contingent on what Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki requests. “I have every confidence that a request like that is something that I think will be forthcoming at some point.”
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.
Obama has said he intends to carry out the current U.S.-Iraq agreement, worked out in 2008 before he became commander in chief. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said repeatedly that he hopes Iraq asks for some continued presence beyond Dec. 31.
On a glide path to confirmation, Panetta would replace Gates, who’s retiring June 30 after 4½ years in the Bush and Obama administrations.
A California Democrat, the 72-year-old Panetta was head of the House Budget Committee, served as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff and budget director, and led the CIA for the past two years.
He received effusive praise from the senators, based in part on the CIA’s role in the raid and killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
“I just think the president’s put together an A-plus national security team, and you’re one of the linchpins of that,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Panetta was pressed by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the committee’s top Republican, on whether the initial drawdown from Afghanistan should be modest, as Gates has said.
“I agree that they should be conditions-based,” he said. He said he would leave it to Obama, Gates and Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, “to decide what that number should be.”
Several lawmakers are pushing for a substantial drawdown of 10,000 troops or more; others favor a smaller reduction of 5,000 or fewer.
Panetta said opposition forces in Libya have made gains in the east and west, and rebel leaders could maintain continuity if Gadhafi is ousted. The NATO military operation, strong economic penalties and the enforcement of the no-fly zone are putting tremendous pressure on Gadhafi.
“I think there are some signs that if we continue the pressure, if we stick with it, that ultimately Gadhafi will step down,” Panetta said.
Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Susan Collins of Maine questioned what more must be done to force Gadhafi out, and said the U.S. and its allies must have a plan for Libya once he leaves or chaos will ensue.
Panetta agreed. He said U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who’s been meeting this week with international leaders about Libya, are working on ways to give rebel forces the capabilities they will need if they have to take control.
On the budget, lawmakers expressed concern about Obama’s call to slash $400 billion more over 12 years even while acknowledging the fiscal reality.
“The defense budget will not, and should not, be exempt from cuts,” said the committee chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.
Panetta indicated that those 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.
In more personal terms, Panetta said his top priority was the troops, pointing out that his youngest son, Jim, served in Afghanistan and received the Bronze Star. He described himself as the son of Italian immigrants and always mindful of his father’s words that “to be free, you have to be secure.”
Focusing on the challenges for the next defense secretary, Panetta said, “We are no longer in the Cold War. This is more like the blizzard war, a blizzard of challenges that draw speed and intensity from terrorism, from rapidly developing technologies and the rising number of powers on the world stage.”
Associated Press writer Sagar Meghani contributed to this report.