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Panetta: 1,000 al Qaeda terrorists still in Iraq

Outgoing CIA Director Leon Panetta warned about the continuing threat from al Qaeda in Iraq before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing to replace Robert Gates as defense secretary. "I have to tell you there are 1,000 al Qaeda that are still in Iraq," Panetta said, in what was generally a warm ...

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Outgoing CIA Director Leon Panetta warned about the continuing threat from al Qaeda in Iraq before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing to replace Robert Gates as defense secretary.

"I have to tell you there are 1,000 al Qaeda that are still in Iraq," Panetta said, in what was generally a warm reception from the assembled senators.

The U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement requires that all U.S. forces should leave Iraq by the end of 2011, though Gates has urged Iraqi political leaders to allow forces to remain longer to secure the country’s recent security gains. Panetta’s comment was one of the most specific examples of the threats that the United States perceives in Iraq that could be unleashed by a quick withdrawal of the remaining 45,000 U.S. troops.

Over 500 Iraqi civilians have lost their lives in terrorist attacks so far in 2011, according to the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index, as well as approximately 30 U.S. troops. Five American soldiers were killed in Baghdad on Monday, marking the most deadly attack on U.S. troops in over two years.

Brookings Institution senior fellow Michael O’Hanlon, who helps produce the Iraq Index, said that "the pace of attacks suggests a number roughly in the range" of Panetta’s estimate of 1,000 al Qaeda fighters in Iraq.

In a performance seen as something of an homage to Gates’s sober style, Panetta also reiterated the United States’ willingness to keep a residual force in Iraq, if asked by the Iraqi government.

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