Defense Secretary Leon Panetta expressed hope Monday that the United States and Iraq can soon reach agreement on a possible U.S. military training role in Iraq beyond Dec. 31, when all American troops are scheduled to depart.
Panetta's remarks contrasted with indications from a senior Obama administration official and a senior U.S. military official on Saturday that the U.S. is abandoning plans to keep any troops in Iraq past the year-end withdrawal deadline _ other than about 160 troops who would be attached to the U.S. Embassy.
Panetta and other top U.S. officials have pressed the Iraqis for months to decide whether they want a substantial U.S. military training mission in 2012. During his first visit to Baghdad as Pentagon chief in July, Panetta appeared exasperated by the Iraqis, at one point saying, "Damn it, make a decision."
But more recently Obama administration officials have displayed less of a public sense of urgency, while noting that the current U.S. force of about 39,500 troops is on track to shrink to zero by year's end.
"At the present time I'm not discouraged because we're still in negotiations with the Iraqis," Panetta said Monday when asked by a reporter whether the talks had hit an impasse. He said James Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, and Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander there, were in "discussions with Iraqi leaders" that could still yield agreement on a post-2011 U.S. military presence.
Asked whether the U.S. had given the Iraqis a "drop dead" date beyond which the U.S. would not agree to halt its troop drawdown, Panetta said, "No, not at this point," adding, "We're continuing to negotiate."
In comments aired Monday in Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said there will be no post-2011 U.S. military training mission if the Obama administration insists on legal immunity for its troops.
Speaking to Al-Masar television station, which is affiliated with al-Maliki's Dawa Party, he emphasized the Iraq security forces' need for further training but said the immunity issue remains a sticking point. The U.S. routinely negotiates legal protections for troops based abroad.
"We have said from the beginning and the political blocs have said as well that there is a necessity for training, but the size is being left to the Iraqi technical side, while the immunity we had said is not possible and from the beginning we have said that it can't get the approval from the parliament," he said.
The prime minister said there is a "NATO alternative," although he did not describe what he meant by that.
NATO has a small training presence in Iraq now and is in talks over continuing that mission into next year. But putting more U.S. troops under the NATO umbrella would face similar challenges over how to protect them legally.
Al-Maliki also mentioned the possibility of using non-military personnel such as contractors to provide training.
The interview with Al-Masar television was recorded Saturday.
At the State Department, spokesman Mark Toner said no final decisions about a future U.S. military presence have been made. He would not discuss what is preventing the sides from reaching agreement.
"I would just say that discussions with Iraqis about the nature of that relationship are ongoing," Toner said.
Panetta did not specify what was under negotiation, but his press secretary, George Little, told reporters that the talks on the future U.S.-Iraqi security relationship include discussion of a U.S. military training mission. He said this would be in addition to the work of the Office of Security Cooperation, which is an arm of the U.S. Embassy and is headed by a three-star U.S. Army general. That office is charged with facilitating Iraqi arms purchases and training the Iraqis on how to use and maintain them.
What would be lacking, if there is no broader U.S. military training mission, is the collective training of Iraqi ground and air forces on how to maneuver on the battlefield with key weapons like tanks and artillery. U.S. officials have said the Iraqi military currently lacks the ability to defend the country's borders and air space. It also has substantial gaps in the fields of intelligence, logistics and medical evacuation.
Associated Press writer Mazin Yahya in Baghdad contributed to this report.
Robert Burns can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/robertburnsAP