BAGHDAD: Leon Panetta arrived in Iraq on Sunday on his first trip there as US defense secretary, saying he would press Baghdad on the future US military presence and go after militants attacking US forces with Iranian rockets.
The United States is scheduled to withdraw all of its remaining 46,000 troops from Iraq by the end of this year, under the terms of a bilateral security pact, despite US and Iraqi military concerns about expected gaps in security.
Panetta, who is fresh from a trip to Afghanistan, made hopeful remarks to Congress last month that Iraq's government might eventually ask some US forces to remain beyond 2011. But he was cautious in his comments to reporters in Afghanistan, just before departing for Iraq.
Asked whether he would encourage Iraq to ask some US forces to stay, Panetta said: "I'll encourage them to make a decision so that we'll know where we're going."
US officials say that the clock is ticking and that the longer the Iraqis wait, the more difficult it becomes for Washington to say "yes".
"Nothing is actually completely impossible. But things do become costlier and riskier" the later in the year it gets, said one senior US defense official, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity.
"They could conceivably ask General Austin as the last guy in Iraq at midnight on December 31st but it would be pretty difficult for us to say 'yes'," the official said, referring to Army General Lloyd Austin, commander of US forces in Iraq.
The question is a tricky one for Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shia-led coalition government. At least one key group in Maliki's fragile cross-sectarian coalition, the political bloc of anti-American Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, openly opposes a continuing US military presence.
Sadr's bloc has threatened to escalate protests and even "military resistance" if US troops stay on.
Another political hiccup that is worrying Washington is Baghdad's failure so far to name a defence minister - an issue Panetta said he would raise in his talks with Maliki on Monday.