Pentagon chief Leon Panetta on Tuesday defended the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq next month despite sharp criticism from some lawmakers, saying Washington had to accept that Iraq was a sovereign state.
In a politically charged hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Panetta told Republican "hawks" that the United States tried to negotiate a deal to keep a small contingent of troops in Iraq beyond the end of the year but the talks stumbled over the question of legal immunity for American soldiers.
In a testy exchange with Senator John McCain, who accuses President Barack Obama of abandoning Iraq, Panetta said it was not the case that the United States could simply decide what it wanted in Iraq.
"This was about negotiations with a sovereign country," he said. "This is not about us telling them what we're going to have to do."
Although the Iraqi government was ready to adopt legal protections, US officials wanted the country's parliament to ratify the safeguards but that proved too difficult, he said.
"I was not about to have our troops go there... without those immunities," he said.
The US military's top officer, General Martin Dempsey, told lawmakers he was concerned about the future of Iraq after the pullout but said he agreed with Obama's decision as American forces could not operate without legal protections.
"In anticipation of the question about whether I'm concerned about the future of Iraq, the answer is yes," Dempsey said.
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But the general said "this isn't a divorce" and that the United States would maintain a role training and advising Iraqi security forces.
McCain, the Vietnam war veteran who argued for a "surge" of US forces in 2007, accused the Obama administration of "political expediency" in pulling out troops and said it would leave Iraq vulnerable to the influence of neighboring Iran.
He said he believed that the decision "represents a failure of leadership, both Iraqi and American, that it was a sad case of political expediency supplanting military necessity, both in Baghdad and in Washington, and it will have serious negative consequences for the stability of Iraq and the national security interests of the United States."
Panetta, however, said he was confident that Iraq could manage its security and counter Iran's influence.
"To be sure, Iraq faces a host of remaining challenges, but I believe Iraq is equipped to deal with them," he said.
Iraq's political leaders "basically reject what Iran's trying to do," he added.
Following the US invasion of 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein's regime, US and Iraqi leaders agreed a security pact in 2008 that called for the departure of all American troops by the end of 2011.
The US military withdrawal from Iraq is in full swing, with convoys and aircraft transporting troops and equipment out of the country before the end of the year.