Gates Wraps Up Whirlwind Visit with Iraqi Leaders
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq, Sep. 3, 2007 It is important for top military commanders here to be able to deliver assessments directly to the commander in chief without “summarization” or “filters,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today.
President George W. Bush, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, National Security Advisor Steve Hadley, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, and Secretary of State Condolezza Rice, meet with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nouri al Makili and other high ranking Iraqi Government officials at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, Sept. 3, 2007. Defense Dept. photo by Cherie A. Thurlby
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
“I felt it was very important that the president have the opportunity to speak directly to each of his senior military commanders and to get their views on the way forward,” Gates said at the end of a day-long surprise visit here by President Bush and top U.S. and Iraqi political and military leaders. “I thought it was important for the president to hear directly from these commanders, not filtered through me, or even summarized by General (Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), and I think that’s been a very satisfactory process.”
Gates talked with media members flanked by national security advisor Stephen J. Hadley and Army Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan.
Officials steered clear of making a formal assessment on progress in Iraq, instead deferring to next week’s scheduled testimony before congress by Iraq’s top U.S. military commander, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker.
Gates said he didn’t want to “preempt” Petraeus’ testimony, but said he feels security has improved in Iraq. Gates said determining the level of progress and U.S. troop levels needed to maintain security in the country has been a primary focus of military assessments.
“Clearly that is one of the central issues that everyone has been examining: What is the security situation? What do we expect the security situation to be in the months ahead? And what opportunities does that provide in terms of maintaining the security situation while perhaps beginning to bring the troop levels down? That’s what everybody’s been looking at,” Gates said.
Rather than assess security in the country as a whole, military officials have begun assessing each region or area individually, Gates said.
Officials heralded progress made in this westernmost province in the past year. Once an al Qaeda stronghold, Anbar tribal leaders have turned their forces against the insurgency and now are supporting coalition forces. As a result, the U.S. military in January sent an additional 4,000 Marines into the region to help hold areas. The military also has sent in more provincial reconstruction teams and committed more funds to local commanders’ projects. More than 20,000 Anbari fighters have joined Iraqi security forces in the region.
Now, the region serves as a model for what Bush and Gates would like to see happen across Iraq.
“I think that there is the general view that certainly here in Anbar the security situation has improved. It has improved in other parts of Iraq as well,” Gates said. “We are trying to look at Iraq in its different pieces. Clearly there is hard work that remains to be done in some (areas), but the situation elsewhere is in pretty good shape. That’s the kind of analysis that has been driving the work that’s been going on.”
Hadley said the upcoming commander’s analysis is the starting point for the president to decide if and when troops can begin drawing down in the region. “The issues are: Are we at the point where we can continue to make security progress and reduce the number of forces?” he said.
Gates said the president received the assessments last week, when he was briefed by Petraeus, Navy Adm. William J. Fallon, commander of U.S. Central Command, and Pace. Gates said he will wait until Petraeus presents his views to Congress next week before announcing his own assessment.
Hadley said Bush wanted to frame the issues, highlight progress made in Anbar province, talk with top Iraqi political and military leaders here face to face and then give Petraeus and Crocker the opportunity to present their reports to Congress and the American people next week.
During today’s visit, the president and his top military and political decision-makers met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; President Jalal Talabani; Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi; Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi; and Massoud Barzani, president of the semiautonomous Kurdish region.
Bush also met with local provincial leaders to congratulate them on progress in the region and “thank them for what they’ve done for Iraq, what they’ve done in the war against al Qaeda and for helping make Anbar a place that will not be a safe have from which al Qaeda can plot against the United States,” Hadley said. Bush also encouraged a greater connection between local tribes and the central Iraqi government.
Gates said there was a “good feeling” in the meeting between the national government, military and tribal parties who have at times been at odds.
“I would say that there was a sense of shared purpose among them, that they were all in this together,” he said. “And there was what I would consider some good-natured jousting about resources and who’s going to get what in terms of reconstruction.”