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DoD News Briefing with Secretary Gates from Iraq

Presenters: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace and Commander Multinational Force-Iraq Gen. George Casey
December 22, 2006
              SEC. GATES: How are you all this morning?
 
            For the past few days General Pace and I have met with our military commanders here in Iraq, the leaders of the Iraqi government, and the brave men and women who are serving here.  I appreciate the openness and candor that I received from everyone.
 
            I'm sorry I wasn't able to travel to Mosul today to see firsthand the situation there. Iraqis working together with our military has led to success in that area. And as Iraqis take over more responsibility there, the U.S. presence will diminish.
 
            The situation here in Baghdad obviously is difficult. Yesterday I told Prime Minister Maliki that we are committed to the success of the Iraqi government.
 
            I've asked General Casey in the coming days to follow up with the prime minister and the Iraqi military leaders, to make specific recommendations on how to improve the security situation here. Clearly, success will only be achieved by a joint effort, with Iraqis taking the lead.
 
            On my return home, I will report to the president what I've learned here. I hope that will be this weekend.
 
            And finally, as we enter this holiday weekend, I'd simply like to express my admiration to the men and women in uniform and to their families, and to thank them for the sacrifices they're all making and for their bravery in pursuit of our nation's security.
 
            Be happy to take some questions.
 
            Q: Mr. Secretary, can you tell us a little bit about what you learned this week? It's your first week on the job. You spent the bulk of it here in Iraq. Can you tell us what you know now that you didn't know before and part of what the crux of your message may be to the president, without telling us exactly what you're going to tell him?
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, one of the things that clearly impressed me -- and I think I alluded to it yesterday in our meeting with y'all -- and that is, it seems to me that a much greater degree of confidence, sophistication and understanding on the part of the Iraqis of what needs to be done, as well as their real determination to play their role and to take a leadership role in dealing with some of these security problems and then economic reconstruction -- that seems to me to be significantly advanced since I was here a couple of months ago.
 
            I've been very impressed by the soldiers -- American soldiers that I've met and talked to. This morning I had an excellent briefing on the effort that we're making against the IEDs. And before that, I had a meeting with a group of our soldiers who are partnering with Iraqis in operations and was very encouraged by their confidence in their Iraqi partners, by the trust that they describe developing between American and Iraqi soldiers, their admiration for the Iraqi soldiers that they're working with, and their belief that this partnering, where the Iraqis take the lead and where the Iraqis significantly outnumber the American soldiers, but in partnership, they're being very successful.
 
            And they describe these Iraqi soldiers being very brave and very willing to be aggressive, so I found all of that very encouraging in terms of the overall strategy as we move forward of the Iraqis taking the lead with us in a support role. Those are some of the things that I think I picked up.
 
            Q: Mr. Secretary, you've repeatedly stressed that the United States will maintain an enduring presence here in the Gulf. Meanwhile, we're sending more force into the Gulf. What message are you trying to send to Iran?
 
            SEC. GATES: I think the message that we're trying -- that we are sending to everyone, not just to Iran, is that the United States is an enduring presence in this part of the world. We have been here for a long time. We will be here for a long time, and everybody needs to remember that, both our friends and those who might consider themselves our adversaries.
 
            Q: This is not a response to Iran's threat to retaliate against any U.N. sanctions?
 
            SEC. GATES: I don't think it's a response to anything anyone else has done.
 
            Q: Will there be a second aircraft carrier moving into the Gulf?
 
            SEC. GATES: I don't know the answer to that question at this point.
 
            Q: Will there be an increase in U.S. force levels in the Gulf?
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, I'd defer to General Pace in terms of the actual things that are going on. My impression is that there has been an increase in naval strength in the Gulf over the past several weeks.
 
            Q: Mr. Secretary, as you were talking now, we can hear the crackle of gunfire in the distance, the sounds of explosions, warplanes roaring overhead. Do you really think a surge of additional U.S. forces in the short term could help bring some of this violence under control?
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, we've talked with the Iraqis about the best path forward in terms of improving the security situation here in Baghdad. I think we have a broad strategic agreement between the Iraqi military and Iraqi government and our military. Clearly there are more discussions that need to take place in Washington and more specific recommendations. But I'm quite confident that what I've heard from the Iraqis, of their plans this week, that we will be able to -- that together and with them in the lead we will be able to make an improvement in the security situation here in Baghdad.
 
            Q: Yes, Mr. Secretary, haven't we heard for months or -- well, years, that the Iraqis realize what needs to be done and plan to do it, and yet, you know, still, I think there's sort of widespread agreement that much of what everyone agrees needs to be done hasn't been done -- the militias, you know, et cetera. I guess I'm wondering why you think now there's more likelihood that the Iraqis will do those things, and what steps you're taking, whether it's benchmarks -- publicly announced or others -- to get them to take the steps that we've been trying to get them to take for years, frankly.
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think that's a fair question. And I guess I would start by saying that, as you all know, I'm pretty new to this and so I do bring perhaps a perspective that those who haven't been intensely involved with it -- or those who have been intensely involved with it for the past several years don't have.
 
            And I think one thing that may be missing here is a sense of perspective. You know, this is a country that went through 35 years of rule under Saddam, eight years of war with Iran, the first Gulf War, 12 years of sanctions. It was a country that was ruled by fear. Having people act on their own initiative, having people take responsibility for their actions, these are new things in Iraq, perhaps in the whole history of the country. And the notion that it might have taken a little longer than we Americans might have expected strikes me as not surprising.
 
            But based on what I've heard, I think that what I have learned about their plans, what I've seen in terms of my conversations with the minister of the Interior and the minister of Defense, I think these are people that take their responsibility seriously. I think they are eager to take the lead. They understand they have to take responsibility for their own country. That it has taken longer to get to this point, as I've suggested, I think, given the history of this country, is not surprising.
 
            Will the way forward probably be difficult? Probably. This is a very difficult situation. But I think -- I believe, based on what I've heard and seen both from the American commanders and from the Iraqis, that things are moving in a positive direction. But it's still -- it's going to be a long haul.
 
            Q: Mr. Secretary, is it your impression that there are deep splits within the Iraqi government, especially among Shi'a leaders, over whether to increase the number of U.S. troops here?
 
            SEC. GATES: No, I don't have that impression. I think the issue, if any, is how they assert their own leadership in taking charge of their own fate, and what role is best for the United States to play, and how, together, we can figure the best way for them to succeed. I don't -- I didn't detect any -- there was no indication in any of the conversations I had of a deep split along those lines.
 
            Q: General Casey, General Abizaid has put in his retirement papers. You've had a long career in the Army as well. Are you planning to retire any time soon?
 
            GEN. CASEY: (Off mike) -- not in my plans.
 
            Q: Mr. Secretary, did you talk to them about the militias? And did you get any kind of commitment from them to crack down on the Mahdi Army and the other Shi'ite militias that have been causing so much trouble in the Baghdad area?
 
            SEC. GATES: What I heard from all of the Iraqis that I talked to was the conviction that they have to break down -- that they have to crack down on all lawbreakers across the board and that no group was exempted from that.
 
            Q: If I could change the subject just for a second, I was wondering if General Pace or General Casey had a message that they'd like -- either to the troops or about the troops as we go into this difficult period where they're far from their families.
 
            GEN. PACE: Well, you bet. And thanks for the opportunity.
 
            One of the things that I'm always impressed with whenever we visit here is just the incredible dedication and focus of our men and women here in uniform. I was impressed this time with the growing confidence of the Iraqi leaders in themselves and in each other, and I continue to be impressed with our U.S. military, from the privates first class up to the generals. They get it. They're focused. They know what they're doing is worthwhile. They want to see this mission to a successful conclusion.
 
            They are, of course, missing their families now at the holiday time more than ever, and we thank them for that sacrifice.
 
            And we thank their families, too, because obviously, the families miss their loved ones and they worry about whether or not they're safe over here. You know, our military families serve our country as well as anyone who's ever worn the uniform. So to the folks at home and the folks here, we wish them a very happy and peaceful holiday season.
 
            Q: Mr. Secretary, you said that you're ready to give the president your report this weekend. Without, obviously, telling us what you're going to say to him, do you believe you've gathered enough information this week to make a recommendation on whether or not more troops are needed here?
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, I will report to him on what I learned. As I indicated, there is still some work to be done between General Casey and his counterparts in the Iraqi government. We expect to get more specific information relating to that in the days ahead. But I do expect to give a report to the president on what I've learned and my perceptions, yes.
 
            Q: Mr. Secretary, can you give us a little better sense of what the troops told you this morning about what works, what doesn't work, and how long it might be before they think the Iraqis will be able to take the mission on without the help of the U.S. Army?
 
            SEC. GATES: I think that the main lesson -- the group that I spoke to this morning is a little different kind of transition team in the sense that, as I recall, it's a full company associated -- one American company associated with three Iraqi companies. Have I got that right, general? (Inaudible response.) And so there is a substantially -- it's not just 10 or 11 Americans embedded. It's a unit that brings all kinds of resources to help the Iraqis -- not just the training, but intelligence and so on.
 
            And they seem to think that that's really the way to go. You know, I'll have to look to the senior officers for their recommendations on that, but certainly, this unit felt the way they were doing it was working. And they seem very content with it.
            STAFF: (Inaudible) just one more, I'm afraid.
 
            Q: So you've said that you emerged from your meetings with the Iraqis feeling confident that they were determined to get security under control in Baghdad and also that they were going to be cracking down on all outlaws, if you will. Were they able to make any commitments about concrete steps they're going to take to crack down on the militias, which is, as we've heard before, so important here in Baghdad?
 
            SEC. GATES: I think that they do have some concrete plans in mind, and putting flesh on those bones is exactly what General Casey and his team and the Iraqis will be doing in the days ahead.
 
            STAFF: Thank you.
 
            Q: Thank you.
 
            SEC. GATES: Thank you.
 
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