By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT, Oct. 21, 2011 – Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said President Barack Obama's announcement today that all U.S. troops would leave Iraq by year's end was "a real turning point from the last 10 years of war."
"At the end of this year, there will be a clear end to the U.S. combat presence in Iraq," the secretary told reporters traveling with him to Indonesia on the first leg of a three-nation overseas trip.
Since the war in Iraq began in 2003, hundreds of thousands of service members have deployed there. "As we know, 4,500 were killed in action, and some 32,000 were wounded," Panetta said.
The secretary said he is profoundly grateful to the U.S. military men and women who have served in Iraq, and to their families. They have borne a heavy burden and paid a great price, he added.
"I think it's a testament to their strength and to their resilience that we are now able to bring this war to a responsible end," he said. "Thanks to their service and thanks to their sacrifice, Iraq is ready to govern and defend itself, and to contribute to the security and stability of a … vital part of the world."
The secretary said U.S. defense officials will now turn their "full attention" to pursuing a long-term strategic partnership with Iraq based on mutual interests and respect.
"Our goal will be to establish a normal relationship, similar to others in the region that focuses on meeting security and training needs for Iraq," he said.
Iraq is a sovereign nation that must determine its own future, and "we will help them in every way to do that," the secretary said, noting that the country has developed a "very good capability" in its own national defense.
"We've taken out of there, right now, about 100,000 troops," he said, "And yet the level of violence has remained relatively low." That, he added, reflects Iraqi forces' increasing capability to respond to security threats within their borders.
Iraq's recently announced plan to purchase 18 F-16 fighter jets from the United States will build that nation's air capability, Panetta said. "We will work with them to try to ensure they have the capability and training … to use [them] to protect their own air space," he added.
When the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq is complete, Panetta said, "then I think we begin a process of negotiating … what will be the nature of that relationship — what kind of training do they need, what kind of security needs do they [have], and how can we provide it?"
The question for the future U.S.-Iraq relationship is "not necessarily what we want, but what the Iraqis want … to be able to provide for their security," he added.
Panetta will land in Indonesia tomorrow evening local time, tomorrow morning in Washington. His weeklong trip to Asia also includes visits to Japan and South Korea.