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Opening Statement - Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing on Iraq

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Leon. E. Panetta, Washington, DC, Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, Senator McCain, distinguished members of the committee.

Thank you, as always, for your continuing support for our men and women in uniform and for their families.  We deeply appreciate the support that we get from all of you that helps those that put their lives on the line.

I appreciate the opportunity to describe our strategy in Iraq and to do so alongside General Dempsey, who has overseen so many critical efforts of the Iraq campaign from its outset in 2003. I think General Dempsey's been deployed multiple times to that area, served in key positions both here in Washington and at CENTCOM in Tampa, and has a pretty good feel for the situation in Iraq.

It's helpful as always to recall the objective here with regards to Iraq.  In February of 2009, President Obama, and before President Obama, President Bush, I heard him say this directly to the Iraq Study Group, laid out a very clear and achievable goal that was shared by the American and Iraqi people.

And that was simply an Iraq that is sovereign, stable and self-reliant; in the words of President Bush, "an Iraq that could govern, sustain, and secure itself.”

Today, thanks to innumerable sacrifices from all involved, Iraq is governing itself.  It is a sovereign nation.  It is an emerging source of stability in a vital part of the world.  And as an emerging democracy, it is capable of being able to address its own security needs.

For our part, the United States is ready to mark the beginning of a new phase in our relationship with Iraq, one that is normal, similar to others in the region, and based on mutual interests and mutual respect.

As the president announced last month, we are fully implementing the 2008 U.S.-Iraq Security Agreement.  And under the outstanding leadership of General Lloyd Austin – and there are no limits as to what I can say about his leadership, it's been absolutely outstanding at a very difficult period – we're completing the drawdown of our forces by the end of this year.

This fulfills the pledge made by President Bush, as well as President Obama, which called for an end to the combat mission last August and a removal of all U.S. combat forces by December 31st, 2011.

We are continuing to pursue a long-term training relationship with the Iraqis through the Office of Security Cooperation, which will include a limited number of U.S. military personnel operating under our embassy and receiving normal diplomatic protections.

Through the U.S.-Iraq strategic framework agreement, we also have a platform for future cooperation in counterterrorism, in naval and air defense, and in joint exercises, and we will work with the Iraqis to pursue those efforts.

Let me briefly walk through obviously some of the major challenges that have already been pointed out that will confront Iraq and mention why I believe that Iraq is at a stage that it is able to deal with them. Certainly with our continuing long-term relationship, I think they can deal with these issues.

First is the challenge of extremism. I expect that we will see extremists, including al Qaeda in Iraq and Iranian-backed militant groups, that will continue to plan and continue to carry out periodic high-profile attacks.  While these groups remain capable of conducting these types of attacks, they do not enjoy widespread support among the Iraqi population, and more importantly, the Iraqis have developed some of the most capable counterterrorism forces in the region. The Iraqis have been active against Iranian-backed militants in recent months, and we will be in a position to continue to assist them in building these capabilities through our Office of Security Cooperation.  The fact is that despite our reduction in forces from well over 150,000 to now approximately 24,000, the levels of violence in Iraq remain low.

A second challenge for Iraq is the conflict between political blocs – Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, others. As in any democracy, Iraq deals with a range of competing agendas.  But the solutions to these challenges lie in the political, not the military realm. Our diplomats, including Ambassador Jeffrey and his team, continue to work with and assist the Iraqis in bridging these remaining divides.  In particular, the formation of the government and the appointment of Defense and Interior ministers, which still has not happened and should, and the cooperation along the Arab-Kurd divide in the north.  Resolving all of these issues will take time.  But Iraq's political leadership remains committed to doing so within the political process that has been established. 

A third key challenge is closing the gaps in Iraq's external defense.  The Iraqis will need assistance in this area, including logistics and air defense, and that will be an important focus of the Office of Security Cooperation.  The recent decision by the Iraqis to purchase U.S. F-16s, part of a $7.5 billion foreign military sales program, demonstrates Iraq's commitment to build up its external defense capabilities and maintain a lasting mil-to-mil training relationship with the United States.

And finally, one last challenge is the Iranian regime's attempt to influence the future of Iraq and advance its own regional ambitions. Tehran has sought to weaken Iraq by trying to undermine its political processes, and as I've mentioned, by facilitating violence against innocent Iraqi civilians and against American troops.  These destabilizing actions, along with Tehran's growing ballistic missile capability and efforts to advance its nuclear program, constitute a significant threat to Iraq, the broader region, and U.S. interests.  And yet the strong, sovereign and self-reliant Iraq we see emerging today has absolutely no desire to be dominated by Iran or by anyone else.

With our partners in the region, the United States is committed to countering Iran's efforts to extend its destabilizing influence.  We've made very clear that we're committed to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.  And while we have strengthened our regional security relationship in recent years, Tehran's destabilizing activities have only further isolated that regime.  So as we mark this new phase in our enduring partnership with Iraq, the Iranian regime is more likely than ever to be marginalized in the region and in its ability to influence the Iraqi political process.

Our long-term security partnership with Iraq is part of a broader commitment by the United States to peace and security throughout the region.  Our message to our allies, our friends and our potential adversaries is very clear:  we have more than 40,000 American troops that remain in the Gulf region.  We're not going anywhere.  And we will continue to reassure our partners, deter aggressors, and counter those seeking to create instability.

Iraq has come through this difficult period in its history and emerged stronger, with a government that is largely representative of – and increasingly responsive to – the needs of its people.  This outcome was never certain, especially during the war's darkest days.  It is a testament to the strength and resilience of our troops that we helped the Iraqi people reverse a desperate situation and provided them the time and space to foster the institutions of a representative government.

As was pointed out, more than a million Americans have served in Iraq.  More than 32,000 have been wounded, and as we know, nearly 4,500 service members have made the ultimate sacrifice for this mission.  Americans will never forget the service and sacrifice of this next greatest generation and we'll always owe them a heavy debt.  In the coming weeks, as our forces leave Iraq, they can be proud of what they've accomplished. And they and all veterans of the Iraq campaign have earned the nation's most profound gratitude.

Are there concerns about the future?  Of course there are.  Concerns about what Sadr will do, concerns about Iran, concerns about Al Qaida, concerns about Shia extremism, concerns about the Arab-Kurd tensions, along with disputes in other sectarian areas.  There are many of us – many of us that could have designed perhaps a different result.  No question a lot of pressure was brought on the Iraqis, pressures by the senators who visited there, pressures by the President of the United States, by the Vice President of the United States, by Secretary Clinton, by Secretary Gates, and by myself. 

But the bottom line is that this is not about us.  This is not about us.  It's about what the Iraqis want to do and the decisions that they want to make.  And so we have now an independent and sovereign country that can govern and secure itself and, hopefully, make the decisions that are in the interests of its people. 

The U.S. will maintain a long-term relationship with Iraq.  We're committed to that.  We will establish a normal relationship, as we have with other nations in the region.  In talking with our commanders – and I asked this question yesterday to General Odierno, who has been there for a good period of time – he basically said the time has come, the time has come for Iraq to take control of its destiny.  With our help, they, hopefully, can be a stable and secure nation in that region of the world.

Thank you.

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