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Gates: Nothing More Important Than Succeeding in Iraq

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

BAGHDAD, Dec. 20, 2006 – Succeeding in Iraq is the Defense Department’s top priority, newly sworn-in Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, said here today.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, walks with Gen. John Abizaid, center, commander of U.S. Central Command, and Gen. George Casey, commander Multinational Forces Iraq, upon his arrival in Baghdad, Iraq, Dec. 20, just two days after being sworn in as the 22nd secretary of defense. Defense Dept. photo by Cherie A. Thurlby

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

“I’m confident we can do so,” Gates said in a news briefing at Al Faw Palace, headquarters of Multinational Corps Iraq.

The secretary said he came on this surprise Iraq visit to hear "first-hand candid, honest assessments from our commanders on how to proceed in Iraq, particularly since they’ll be the ones to implement whatever decisions are made. I value both their advice and their service to our country.”

Gates noted that he’s been to Iraq before and has spoken to many of the commanders he met with here today, most recently as a member of the Iraq Study Group. Members of the bi-partisan group visited here earlier this year and released their report to the president and Congress on Dec. 6.

One option for dealing with violence in Iraq is to “surge” additional U.S servicemembers into the area. Gates said the idea has merit, but he’ll make no recommendations to the president until he’s spoken to the Iraqis and senior U.S. military members.

The secretary said U.S. commanders have been “very candid” in discussions today and that he’s looking forward to discussions with Iraqi leaders, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Gates stressed the importance of talking to Iraqi leaders. “We need to remember that there is an Iraqi government and … that government needs to be a partner in this, or we need to be a partner with the Iraqi government with them out in front,” he said.

Neither of the top two American military commanders in the region -- Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., commander of Multinational Force Iraq, and Army Gen. John Abizaid, chief of U.S. Central Command -- endorsed the idea of sending more military forces to Iraq. But they also did not reject the idea.

Casey noted that he has asked for -- and received -- additional troops several times when he felt they were needed for specific missions, such as to provide security during elections or to participate in major offensives.

“I’m not necessarily opposed to the idea, but what I want to see happen is when (or) if we do bring more American troops here, they help us progress to our strategic objectives,” Casey said.

Abizaid said all options are on the table. “We’re looking at every possible thing that might influence the situation to make Baghdad, in particular, more secure,” he said.

Gates stressed that he will make no decisions on how to proceed in Iraq, but he will provide recommendations to President Bush.

“There is only one vote that matters, and that’s the president of the United States,” Gates said. “What I’m here to do is talk to all these folks, talk to the Iraqis and see what advice I can give to the president that would help him make the decision.”

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Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates
Gen. John Abizaid, USA
Gen. George W. Casey Jr., USA

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