U.S. defense secretary warns Iran against meddling in Iraq after troops leave

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that even after the last of the 39,000 combat troops are out of Iraq the U.S. will maintain a significant presence in the Middle East. (Reuters)

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Wednesday warned Iran that it should not meddle in Iraq when American forces leave the country at the end of this year.

The Pentagon chief said that even after the last of the 39,000 combat troops are out of Iraq, the U.S. will maintain a significant presence in the Middle East.

“As the president announced, we are going to wind down our combat forces in Iraq by the end of this year,” he told U.S. service personnel during a visit to Tokyo.

“The mission there was to develop an Iraq that could govern and secure itself and we will maintain a long-term relationship with Iraq.”

“The message to Iran and everybody else that might have any ideas there is that the U.S. is going to have a presence in the region for a long time to come.”

Panetta’s comments come at the end of a three-day visit to Japan, part of a tour of Asian allies where he has emphasized Washington’s commitment to the Pacific theatre, despite deep cuts to the U.S. military budget.

They also come days after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton aired similar views after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Tehran had “special relations” with Baghdad.

“No one, most particularly Iran, should miscalculate about our continuing commitment to and with the Iraqis going forward,” Clinton said in an interview with CNN.

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.

Earlier this week, the speaker of Iraq’s parliament accused neighboring nations of meddling in Iraqi affairs and signaled it will only get worse if the country is seen as vulnerable after U.S. troops leave at the end of the year.

Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni Muslim, did not name the Mideast nations and did not offer specifics. Iraq’s Sunnis long have worried about Iran’s burgeoning influence in Baghdad, where the Shiite-dominated government has built ties with Tehran since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein.

“Iraq now suffers from points of weakness,” al-Nujaifi told a news conference in Baghdad. “If neighboring countries see that Iraq is weak and incapable of protecting its borders and internal security, then definitely there will be interference. This interference does exist now.”

Limiting Iran’s influence in Baghdad was a top U.S. pitch to keep American troops in Iraq past the December 31 withdrawal deadline set in a 2008 security agreement. Washington has feared that meddling by Iran, a Shiite Muslim theocracy, could inflame tensions between Iraq’s majority Shiites and minority Sunnis, setting off a chain reaction of violence and disputes across the Mideast.

About 39,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, down from 166,000 in October 2007, the peak of the American military surge to curb sectarian killings that brought the country to the brink of civil war.

Speaking to reporters in Bali, Indonesia on Monday, Panetta noted that an estimated 40,000 U.S. troops will be stationed across the Mideast even after the Iraq withdrawal, including about 23,000 in neighboring Kuwait.

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