SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: Today represents in many ways a real turning point from the last 10 years of war, the end of the U.S. combat presence in Iraq by the end of the year, which both the president and Prime Minister Maliki spoke to earlier, and the likely end of the NATO mission. I understand that there's been a proposal to bring that mission to a close by the end of this month, with probably a two-week transition period to take place.
So we are -- we are seeing two missions in some ways coming to closure. Let me speak to both of them, if I could, just briefly.
First on Iraq. The United States and Iraq affirm today that the U.S. will fulfill its commitment under the current U.S.-Iraq security agreement, an agreement that was worked out in the past administration and which this administration committed to fully enforce. And as a result, pursuant to that agreement, we are withdrawing all of our military forces, our combat forces, by the end of 2011. Today's announcement means that at the end of this year, there will be a clear end to the U.S. combat presence in Iraq.
I wanted to take this opportunity, as secretary of defense, to express my profound gratitude and, I believe, the gratitude of the nation and appreciation to our men and women in uniform who have served in Iraq since this war began in 2003, the literally hundreds of thousands who served in Iraq, and as we know, 4,500 were killed in action and some 32,000 were wounded.
Our troops and their families have borne a very heavy burden during more than eight years of war and have paid a great price. And yet I think it's a testament to their strength and to their resilience that we are now able to bring this war to a responsible end. Thanks to their service and thanks to their sacrifice, Iraq is ready to govern and defend itself and to contribute to the security and stability of a very vital part of the world.
We will now turn our full attention to pursuing a long-term strategic partnership with Iraq that's based on mutual interests and mutual respect. Our goal will be to establish a normal relationship, similar to others in the region that focus on meeting security and training needs for Iraq.
Iraq's a sovereign nation that must determine how to secure its own future, and we will help them in every way to do that. Going forward, we will work closely with the Iraqi government and their armed forces to help them continue to build a stronger and more prosperous country.
Let me briefly talk about Libya. Libya -- our commander, General [sic] Stavridis, the NATO commander, has recommended to NATO that this mission be brought to a close by October 31 and allow for two weeks for a continuing effort to transition out of that mission. And obviously, we're awaiting NATO's final decision with regards to that recommendation.
This has been a successful mission by NATO, by all of NATO's members and by NATO's partners as well. And I want to take this opportunity again to commend all of the forces that were involved in this mission. I had the opportunity last trip to visit with our NATO allies to talk about the effort in Libya and to actually look at the operations that were developed in Naples to try to carry out that mission. And this was -- this was not an easy effort. It involved a great deal of cooperation, a great deal of partnership. But the fact was that working together, they accomplished this mission that Gadhafi is no longer, and finally Libya belongs to the Libyan people.
I also want to confirm for you that in the end, as a symbol of that partnership, it was -- it was a U.S. drone combined with the other NATO planes that fired on the convoy. And that, I think, is a reflection of the -- of the partnership that came together in NATO and in Libya.
And finally, let me talk a little bit about the trip that we're taking here. This is my first trip to Asia as secretary of defense, although I've obviously gone there a number of times in other capacities. As a member of Congress, I visited Japan and other areas in the vicinity. As chief of staff to President Clinton, I had the opportunity to go to that region as well. As director of the CIA, obviously, I visited those key areas, Japan and Korea as well, and now as secretary of defense.
This is an important time to visit that region. There are very important economic, security and diplomatic issues that are being discussed. There's a clear message that I'm going to bring to that region, and the message is this: that we will remain a strong Pacific force in the 21st century, and we will maintain a strong presence in the Pacific in the 21st century and be a strong force for peace and prosperity in that -- in that region.
Our goal is to try to strengthen the alliances that are there and to try to ensure that we build new partnerships to try to improve the security in that region. Indonesia is providing -- the first country that I'll visit is providing great leadership in promoting regional cooperation, and we will continue to support them in that effort. Japan, obviously, is a historic alliance, and I will indicate our continued commitment to that alliance and to working with them for stability in that region. And South Korea, obviously, is another historic alliance that we are working in partnership with to try to protect their security, and we will continue to do that.
So this'll be an important trip to try to make very clear that the United States will maintain a continuing presence in this region in order to promote security in the Pacific.
Q: Mr. Secretary, could I just ask you -- (inaudible) -- the first thing you brought up was Iraq, and you mentioned Iraq defending itself. General Austin has said recently and publicly that Iraq is not capable of defending its own airspace nor its own borders. You have no concern about leaving behind a vulnerable Iraq?
SEC. PANETTA: You know, the one thing -- the one thing we have seen is that Iraq has developed a very good capability to be able to defend itself. We've taken out now about a hundred thousand troops, and yet the level of violence has remained relatively low. And I think that's a reflection of the fact that the Iraqis have developed a very important capability here to be able to respond to security threats within their own country.
Obviously, you know, I think with regards to developing a capability to provide air security, they are getting -- they're getting -- they are getting F-16s. We will work with them to try to ensure that they have the capability and training in order to be able to use those to protect their own airspace.
Q: The Office of Security Cooperation will have, what, 150 uniformed military in Iraq?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, you know, I guess I'd remind you that when we talk about normal relationships in that part of the world, we have a number of them in the region, and they vary in number. For example, in Bahrain I think, you know, we've got almost 5,000 troops that we have in Bahrain. We've got about 20 -- almost 3,000 in the UAE and about 7,500 in Qatar.
Q: What will there be in Baghdad?
SEC. PANETTA: And it varies, depending.
With regards to Baghdad and to Iraq, that remains to be worked out. Once we've completed the reduction of the combat presence, then I think we begin a process of negotiating with them in order to determine what will be the nature of that relationship -- what kind of training do they need; what kind of security needs do they need; and how can we provide it in an effective way. We do this in other countries. That's what we're going to do in Iraq.
Q: (Inaudible) -- agreement on an Office of Security Cooperation staffing level -- (inaudible) -- U.S. military?
SEC. PANETTA: There's no -- there's no agreement with regards to numbers -- (inaudible).
Q: You know, I was going to ask the same question, because Denis McDonough was talking about we will be there training. Well, how many -- (off mic) that implies there will be a number of forces there? And so is there -- you have said in the past, in your confirmation hearing, that you would like a presence in Iraq. So is that still your opinion? And if so -- (off mic)?
SEC. PANETTA: I -- you know, look, one of the -- you know, the mission here was to develop an independent and sovereign Iraq that could govern and defend itself. And so the question to ask is -- is not necessarily what we want; it's what the Iraqis want in order to be able to provide for their security. So as we enter into, you know, a negotiating process to look at developing this normal relationship, a lot of it is going to depend on what they want, what their needs are and how we can best meet them. But I don't think there's any question that, you know, the ability to help provide additional training, to provide some security assistance, would, I think, be able to assist them as they try to provide for their security.
Q: Mr. Secretary, just to be clear then, are we saying that some additional trips beyond those mentioned today would remain in Iraq with a future agreement, or is this just sort of external rotating in, rotating out training operations?
SEC. PANETTA: I think that's -- again, that's to be worked out in developing what that relationship will be for the future. I mean, we brought the war to an end, and now the question is what kind of continuing relationship do we want to have with them? And that's something, as I said, to be worked out based on what they believe their needs are.
And it can vary. I've given you numbers. I mean, Saudi Arabia, we have 231 troops. Other places we have larger amounts of troops. But it's basically going to depend on what their needs are and how we can best meet them.
Q: Mr. Secretary, earlier in the week when you met with your Italian counterpart, you seemed to be expressing confidence that you would actually be able to reach an agreement. That was just on Monday.
On the weekend -- last weekend, your press secretary issued a statement basically denying a report from Baghdad that there was a decision to completely pull out. What changed between Monday and today?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, you know, it -- not really very much, because the whole issue was: What is it that Iraq wants, what are their needs, and what can we do to respond to it? And I think what we've always known is that, pursuant to the security agreement that was worked out, we were going to bring our combat presence to an end. And in many ways, the president and prime minister have now confirmed that that's going to be the case.
With regards to a long-term relationship with Iraq, the president spoke to that today, the prime minister spoke to that today, that we're going to maintain that long-term relationship. And so in that process, we're continuing -- the Ambassador, General Austin, will continue to work with them to determine what kind of relationship we'll have in the future. So it's ongoing.
Q: And I'm sorry if this sounds a little confused, but it was my understanding that, as you just said, everyone agreed that the combat operations were going to end at the end of this year.
SEC. PANETTA: Right.
Q: The negotiations that have been happening were about the extended –
SEC. PANETTA: Whatever the presence will be.
Q: Yeah, so -- so nothing has happened. So we're exactly where we were yesterday, is what you're saying?
SEC. PANETTA: (Inaudible) -- well, I mean, what we've done -- what we're –
Q: You're still -- you're still going to be negotiating?
SEC. PANETTA: What they've done is made very clear that we are going to proceed with reducing the combat presence, bring the war to an end, and then the nature of the relationship is one that we think will be a normal relationship with Iraq, based on what are -- their needs are for the future.
We're still going to -- I mean, as the prime minister has stated, as the president has stated, you know, we're prepared to meet their training needs. We're prepared to engage in exercises with them. We're prepared to provide guidance and training with regards to their pilots. We are prepared to continue to develop an ongoing relationship with them into the future.
Q: (Inaudible) -- you referenced Bahrain, saying 5,000 troops, other countries. Is that a range that you could foresee -- (inaudible)?
SEC. PANETTA: No, I -- what I'm giving you is an example that there are other countries in that region where we maintain a normal relationship that involves the presence of trainers and assistance to those countries. And it's the nature of that kind of relationship that we want to develop with Iran -- or Iraq, in the future.
STAFF: All right .
Q: Mr. Secretary, what is the mission of the troops now in Iraq? Is it simply to get out safe -- the current mission, is it simply to get out safely, or are they still going to be doing other security operations?
SEC. PANETTA: General Austin has basically developed a plan to, obviously, draw down the forces. We're implementing that plan as we speak. I've got tremendous confidence in General Austin, that he will be able to do this. And it's very important that as we do it we provide for the security of our forces, and that's what we're doing.
STAFF: OK -- (inaudible).
Q: (Inaudible) to Libya, how do they view -- how do you view the U.S. role in Libya in the coming month and years? And some help -- (inaudible) -- the new Libyan army?
SEC. PANETTA: Yeah, I mean, I -- you know, obviously, there's a -- you know, there's going to be a tough path ahead for Libya. They've got -- they've got to be able to developing that -- develop governing institutions. They've got to be able to provide for elections. They've got to be able to develop the institutions of government and put them in place. It's going to be -- it's going to be difficult.
And hopefully, the United States and other countries, other NATO countries, the U.N., other allies in the Arab world, will help provide assistance and guidance to them to, hopefully, guide them in a way toward the kind of government that really represents the people of Libya.
STAFF: We've got time for a couple more questions and follow-ups.
Q: Just a quick follow-up. Would the U.S. be ready to provide assistance in the development of security cooperation to protect that country?
SEC. PANETTA: I think, you know, again, we're looking at, you know, kind of the more immediate issues: What kind of health care needs do they have? How can we respond to that? And so we are looking at options to provide health -- you know, there have been an awful lot of wounded and an awful lot of people who've been injured. What is it we can do to best assist them in that arena?
We're concerned about security of the weapons, to make sure that we provide for the security of those weapons so that they don't make their way into the hands of extremists and to other elements that could use them in the wrong way.
And, you know, we're going to continue, obviously, on the diplomatic side to assist them in every way possible with regards to helping them develop the institutions of government that are necessary.
STAFF: All right, two more questions.
Q: Yeah, what do you think about -- what do you think about the possibility of North Korea's additional provocation in the future? And what's your assessment of the power succession process in the North Korea so far? And do you think -- (inaudible) -- Kim Jong -il forge a strong -- (inaudible) -- on their military?
SEC. PANETTA: OK, I'm trying here.
Well, what we want to do is obviously work with South Korea to make sure that we are working together in dealing with, you know, the threats that come out of North Korea, and if there are provocations, that we work together to confront those provocations and to deal with them. But you know this has been a very important partnership throughout the world throughout the years. And it's a partnership that I want to continue to work with them on. President Lee had a very good visit to the United States, and the purpose of my visit is to basically build on that.
With regards to the situation in North Korea, you know, it's always been one of either accommodation or provocation. And at the present time it appears that they're trying to be accommodating in some ways and try to work with us in some areas. And you know, obviously, we would want them to do that. But I think we always have to be prepared, from a security point of view, to deal with the likelihood that as we -- as succession develops in North Korea that it could lead to greater provocations.
STAFF: All right, finally Larry ?
Q: Mr. Secretary, when you meet with your counterparts during this trip on all three stops, if the subject of China comes up, what will your message to them be about the U.S. relationship with China? Is it improving? Is it moving forward the way you would hope?
SEC. PANETTA: Yeah, you know, the message on China is that the United States really does want to develop a cooperative relationship with China. China is a major power in that region, and it's very important for us to be able to develop, particularly on the military side, mil-to-mil relations. It's important that we continue to communicate. It's important that we continue to work together.
At the same time, I think China must recognize that in order to have that kind of relationship, that they have to be transparent and that they have to be working with us to try to recognize international rules so that all countries can enjoy security and enjoy navigation rights, right of passage, but more importantly, can enjoy a degree of security in that part of the world.
STAFF: All right, thank you, everyone. Appreciate it. Thank you.