NAPLES, Italy, Oct. 8 (UPI) -- Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told American sailors in Italy if a U.S. presence is to remain in Iraq, troops must be granted legal immunity.
"If they want the benefits of what we can provide, if they want the assistance, if they want the training, if they want the operational skills that we can provide, then I think they have to understand that they've got to give us some protections in that process," Panetta told sailors Friday during a visit to Naples.
Panetta's comments were made after a sailor inquired about Iraq refusing to give legal immunity to American forces, CNN reported.
"This is obviously a very pertinent question right now as we try to deal with the issue of whether or not we'll have a future presence in Iraq," Panetta said.
The defense secretary said negotiations between Iraq's political leadership, U.S. Ambassador James F. Jeffrey and Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III were ongoing and include discussions about what rights American troops will have should a military presence be maintained in Iraq.
"If you're going to play a large role in dealing with another country where it requires, as I said, a large group of troops to be on the ground and to be dealing with that country, I want to make damn sure that you're protected," Panetta told the sailors.
Iraqi officials have yet to formally ask that U.S. troops, who would number between 3,000 and 5,000, remain in the country to train Iraqi military forces.
Radical anti-American cleric Moqtada Sadr has vowed to increase armed resistance should the U.S. military not leave as scheduled.