(WASHINGTON) -- Defense Secretary Leon Panetta got a few words of Italian in Monday afternoon when he held a media availability on the steps of the Pentagon River Entrance with visiting Italian Defense Minister Ignazio LaRussa.
“Mille grazie per tutto,” he said to LaRussa, wrapping up introductory remarks thanking Italy for its cooperation in military operations in Libya and Afghanistan.
But reporters were most interested in this weekend’s report that the U.S. was dropping plans to keep American troops in Iraq beyond the 2011 pullout date.
On his first visit to Iraq in July, Panetta had famously stated “dammit, make a decision” about the Iraqi government’s inability to decide on whether to ask the U.S. to extend the presence of American troops.
Since then, the U.S. and Iraq have been holding quiet negotiations that reached a critical point last week when Iraqi leaders said they wanted 5,000 American troops to remain as trainers, though they would not have immunity from prosecution.
From the U.S. point of view, not providing immunity for its military forces is a deal-breaker.
Monday afternoon, when Panetta was asked if he was frustrated about the lack of a deal with Iraq, he replied, “At the present time, you know, I’m not discouraged because we’re still in negotiations with the Iraqis.”
“At this stage of the game, you know, I think our hope is that the negotiators can ultimately find a way to resolve this issue in terms of what are the Iraqi needs and how can we best meet them, once we’ve concluded our combat operations,” he said.
According to Panetta there is no drop-dead point for the talks.
On recent media reports that some of the 20,000 shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles in Libya have made their way to the Sinai Peninsula bound for Gaza, Panetta said, ” I’m very concerned about the reports.”
“We had dispatched a group there to determine what the situation is, and have yet to get a report as to what the status is. But I do remain concerned about the reports of these weapons being out there,” he said.
Later, Panetta aides said the “we” Panetta was referring to were the State Department contractors who continue the hunt for the missiles, and that the “there” he was referring to was Libya.
As to when the NATO mission in Libya would wrap up, Panetta said, “We are looking for our commanders to ultimately recommend when they believe that the mission comes to an end."
With fighting still going on in Sirte, Panetta said “our commanders feel the need for us to maintain our presence.
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