WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta denied on Tuesday any decision was made on keeping some US troops in Iraq beyond an end-year deadline for their withdrawal as speculation mounted that the Obama administration backed keeping a small training force in the country.
The New York Times reported that Panetta supported a plan to keep 3,000 to 4,000 US troops in Iraq past the year-end drawdown deadline agreed in a bilateral security pact. Fox News issued a similar report earlier in the day.
The Panetta-backed plan was significantly smaller than the 14,000 to 18,000 proposed by General Lloyd Austin, the senior US commander in Iraq, the Times said.
Still, the Pentagon and the White House denied there had been a decision on the number of US forces that may stay behind in Iraq, saying that would only come after negotiations between Washington and Baghdad.