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Panetta ties war in Iraq to 9/11 attack

The defense chief’s remarks in Baghdad yesterday conflict with the White House view. The defense chief’s remarks in Baghdad yesterday conflict with the White House view. (Paul J. Richards/ Reuters/ Pool)
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post / July 12, 2011

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BAGHDAD - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta yesterday appeared to justify the US invasion of Iraq as part of the war against Al Qaeda, an argument made by the Bush administration but rejected by President Obama and many Democrats.

Panetta made the remarks during his inaugural visit to Iraq as Pentagon chief. Speaking to about 100 soldiers at Camp Victory, the largest US military installation in Baghdad, he said his primary goal as defense secretary was to defeat Al Qaeda worldwide.

“The reason you guys are here is because on 9/11 the United States got attacked,’’ Panetta told the troops. “And 3,000 Americans - 3,000 not just Americans, 3,000 human beings, innocent human beings - got killed because of Al Qaeda. And we’ve been fighting as a result of that.’’

His statement echoed previous comments made by President George W. Bush and members of his administration, who tried to tie Saddam Hussein’s government to Al Qaeda.

But it put Panetta at odds with Obama, the 9/11 Commission, and other independent specialists, who have said there is no evidence Al Qaeda had a presence in Iraq before the US-led invasion in 2003.

Afterward, pressed by reporters to elaborate, Panetta said: “I wasn’t saying, you know, the invasion - or going into the issues or the justification of that. It was more the fact that we really had to deal with Al Qaeda here, they developed a presence here and that tied in.’’

Douglas Wilson, a spokesman for Panetta, said the defense secretary wasn’t trying to reopen the contentious debate about the cause or justification for the Iraq war.

“I don’t think he’s going down that rabbit hole,’’ Wilson said. “I don’t think he’s getting into the arguments of 2002 and 2003. He’s dealing with the security situation our country faces today.’’

Although US officials have blamed Al Qaeda-backed insurgents for continued instability in Iraq, their presence has shrunk substantially since the aftermath of the invasion, when thousands of Iraqis and foreign fighters allied themselves with the terrorist network.

Panetta, who served as CIA director for 2 1/2 years before taking over as defense secretary, said at his Senate confirmation hearing last month that about 1,000 Al Qaeda fighters remain in Iraq.

Panetta’s remarks about Al Qaeda and the Iraq war were the second time on his war-zone tour that he has raised eyebrows for apparently unscripted comments.

On Saturday, after meeting in Kabul with President Hamid Karzai, the Pentagon chief told reporters - twice - that 70,000 US troops would remain in Afghanistan through the end of 2014.

That statement also put him at odds with Obama, who has said that he will reduce the number of US forces in Afghanistan to 68,000 by September 2012, and will gradually withdraw an unspecified number of additional troops by 2014.

Wilson, Panetta’s spokesman, later said the defense secretary had misspoken and that there was “no daylight’’ between his stance and Obama’s.

Panetta told the American troops he visited in Iraq yesterday that the United States will “do what we can unilaterally’’ to stem Iranian-backed attacks on their bases and convoys, in addition to working with Iraqi authorities.

Panetta also expressed frustration that the Iraqi government isn’t acting more quickly on military issues, including whether to ask the United States to keep some troops in the country beyond a planned December withdrawal.

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