Panetta confident Iraq able to handle Iranian threats

US to maintain significant presence in region following Iraq pullout, says US Defense Secretary; Clinton warns Iran not to exploit drawdown.

Leon Panetta 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS)
Leon Panetta 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS)
BALI, Indonesia - US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta expressed confidence on Sunday that Iraq would be able to deal with any threat from Iran-backed militants, even after America completely withdraws its troops this year.
President Barack Obama announced on Friday that all remaining American troops would leave Iraq by the end of 2011, keeping a campaign promise, after Washington and Baghdad failed to reach agreement on maintaining perhaps thousands of troops as trainers, in part as a buttress against Iranian influence.
RELATED:'US becoming weaker and weaker, hated in the region'US defense chief warns of Iran supplying weapons in Iraq
But Panetta said Iraq would be able to handle itself and noted that America would still have some 40,000 troops in the region - not counting those fighting in Afghanistan.
"Iraq itself has developed an effective force to be able to deal with those threats," Panetta told reporters after meeting with Southeast Asian defense ministers on the Indonesian resort island of Bali.
"And what we've seen in the past when we had concerns about what Iran was doing was that Iraq itself conducted operations against those Shia extremist groups ... They did it in conjunction with our support, and we thought they did a great job. And they'll continue to do that."
Iraq still faces a stubborn Sunni Islamist insurgency tied to al Qaida and rival Shi'ite militias, although violence there is down sharply from the sectarian slaughter of 2006-07.
Over the summer, Panetta and other US officials accused Iran of backing a wave of militant attacks that made June the deadliest month for US troops since 2008.
"I should point out we're going to maintain, as we do now, a significant force in that region of the world," Panetta said, pointing to some 23,000 troops in Kuwait alone. "So we will always have a force that will be present and will deal with any threats from Iran."
Also on Sunday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Iran not to try to exploit the scheduled pullout of all US troops from Iraq.
"No one should miscalculate America's resolve and commitment to helping support the Iraqi democracy," Clinton said on the NBC program "Meet the Press." "We have paid too high a price to give the Iraqis this chance. And I hope that Iran and no one else miscalculates that."