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Extremism is Enemy of Success in Iraq, Gates Says

By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 14, 2008 – Extremism is the enemy of success in Iraq, whether in the form of Iranian-backed "special groups,” criminal militias or al-Qaida, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday.

“It’s those who are not willing to participate in the political process and do so peacefully -- those are the enemy. And those we are trying to help are trying to build a stable government and a stable country,” Gates said speaking on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

Gates fielded questions ranging from the strain on the military to how quickly the U.S. will be able to withdraw more troops from Iraq.

Eight provinces in Iraq are already under provincial Iraqi control, Gates said of security gains in the country. That means either no coalition forces are in these areas or they are serving in a strategic over-watch role and not involved in combat. The next province to be turned over likely will be Anbar, he said.

“So what we have is half of Iraq where the transition has already been made to a different kind of role or mission for U.S. forces,” Gates said. “We are still involved in combat in Baghdad. We are still involved in combat in Mosul and in the north, but the process is one of province by province, district by district. When the Iraqi security forces are good enough, when … the security situation is calm enough, we can then recede into the background. This is the process that’s under way.”

When pressed to put a timeline on how long it will take for security gains to hold in Iraq to allow more troops to be withdrawn, Gates said that it simply is not predictable.

“People want certainty about things that no one can know. Very few would have thought a year ago that things would be as good as they are in Iraq despite the challenges that remain before us now,” Gates said. “So who knows how fast these things can develop.”

The secretary did say that some of the Shiite tribal leaders in Basra are beginning to shift their thinking, similar to their counterparts in Anbar province. That shift last year led to what was dubbed the Anbar Awakening when local tribal leaders began taking control of their own security and expelling al-Qaida and other extremist groups.

“They are looking at Shiia bad guys in their own neighborhoods and saying, ‘We don’t want these people here,’” he said.

It remains to be seen whether it will lead to results similar in Anbar, the secretary said. “A lot depends on those kinds of developments and, frankly, they’re not predictable,” he said.

Gates was questioned about Iranian influence in Iraq and whether the U.S. will “stumble” into a head-on confrontation with Iran. “I think the chances of us stumbling into a confrontation with Iran are very low. We are concerned about their activities in the south. We are concerned about the weapons that they … continue to send into Iraq,” Gates said. “But I think that the process that’s under way is … headed in the right direction.”

Recent fighting against Iraqi security forces by Iranian-backed and trained militias in Basra has soured some Iraqi officials on Iran, Gates said. “I think what has happened is that the hand of Iran has been exposed in a way that perhaps it had not been before to some of the Iraqi government and, frankly, I think that’s a very positive development,” the secretary said.

Gates said that he and all military leaders are concerned about the strain on the force, particularly with additional forces needed in Afghanistan. “Obviously I worry about the strain on the force. We all know that these 15-month tours have been very difficult on our soldiers. We know that the longer tours for the Marines have been very difficult,” he said.

But, Gates said, morale is high because troops know they are winning, and last week’s order by President Bush to reduce deployment lengths will help ease some strain. Gates said he thinks the United States has enough troops in Afghanistan for 2008. And he is optimistic that by 2009, with the increase in the overall size of the Army and Marine Corps and further troop reductions in Iraq, there will be more forces free to deploy to Afghanistan.

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Robert M. Gates

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