Gates: Troop Surge in Iraq Pays Off in Heightened Security
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 5, 2007 Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today on the Sunday morning talk shows that he’s seeing signs the troop surge in Baghdad is helping stabilize security so the Iraqi government can focus on overcoming sectarian divisions and building critical government institutions. (Video)
Gates reported on CNN’s “Late Edition” and NBC’s “Meet the Press” the security situation is improving, but expressed frustration that political progress being seen at the local and provincial level isn’t being matched nationally.
“I think the effort under way to dampen the violence, particularly that caused by the Baathists and by al Qaeda, is working as well as we would have hoped, both in Anbar province and now in the belts around Baghdad,” Gates said.
This is possible, he said, because “we now have sufficient force” to stand up to extremists working to disrupt progress. “These groups, in the past, would squirt out when we would move in, and now we have the force to attack all their primary havens simultaneously,” he said.
While expressing optimism about security, Gates said “the picture is quite mixed” on the political front.
On the positive side, Iraqis and coalition have witnessed “some very interesting developments” working with local officials in Anbar and other provinces. Officials there “have flipped” from supporting the insurgents to enlisting their young men into the Iraqi police force, helping identify roadside bombs and cooperating in other ways with the coalition, he said.
“It’s really been quite a remarkable evolution over the past several months,” he said.
“The disappointing part of this, of course, is the lack of significant progress at the national level, and the Sunni withdrawal from the government,” the secretary said. He noted that individual Sunni ministers, including the defense minister, remain in place.
The Iraqi government’s difficulty in getting key legislation passed “is clearly a concern,” Gates said. “I think months ago we may have underestimated the degree of deep mistrust that underpins these differences and their inability to come to closure” on important legislative packages.
This legislation, which will be as important to Iraq as the U.S. Constitution is to the United States, “will shape the country for decades to come,” he said. “So I guess if you look at it from a longer perspective, it’s not surprising that they are having trouble getting them over the finish line.”
The upcoming Iraq benchmark report, due Sept. 15, will weigh progress militarily and politically at the local level against slower-than-hoped-for achievements at the national level, he said.
Asked if a U.S. troop reduction in Iraq could come by the year’s end, Gates said it’s too soon to know for sure, or how large that reduction might be.
He said he sent messages throughout his just-concluded trip to the Middle East that the United States expects to keep a limited number of troops in Iraq after most of the force redeploys home.
“We anticipate trying to work out with the Iraqi government an arrangement whereby there would be a residual presence of U.S. forces at some fraction of the current level that would be a stabilizing and supporting force in Iraq for some protracted period of time,” he said. “I think that’s generally the view of almost anybody who is looking that this, that some kind of residual force for some period of time will be required beyond when we begin a drawdown.”
Contingency planning is under way on a variety of possibilities that President Bush could order after studying the benchmark report. That report, a follow-up of the July 15 interim report, will be issued by Army Gen. David Petraeus, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker. “We intend to be able to execute whatever decisions the president makes,” Gates said.
Throughout his Middle East trip, Gates said he also emphasized the importance of Iraqi’s Arab neighbors helping ensure its government succeeds and that it isn’t overcome by destabilizing forces such as Iran.
“If you reach out to that (Iraqi) government, if you support that government, if you make them feel less nervous that you are trying to undermine them, then maybe you can draw them more into the Arab camp and keep them away from the Persian camp,” Gates said he told the Arab leaders he met with. “So you have a role in this in terms of allaying their concerns and you should be in there supporting them more aggressively.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has made “very tough” decisions to resist the Iranians, Gate noted. One of the biggest was to authorize military operations to go after the Iranian Quds force in Iraq trying to kill U.S. soldiers.
“He has made several decisions that were in Iraqi national interest and not Iranian national interest,” Gates said. “So I think he is actually established more independence from the Iranians that the popular perception is.”