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Media Availability with Secretary Gates Enroute to Iraq

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
June 15, 2007
            STAFF:   We'll be on the record. We'll do a couple of questions.
 
            And, sir, if you just want to kind of start off with the fact that you're going to Iraq and the purpose of your visit.
 
            SEC. GATES: Okay, well, obviously, there's enormous interest in what's going on. It's an opportunity for me to sit down with General Petraeus and General Odierno and the ambassador and get their take on what's going on. Also meet with Prime Minister Maliki and the Presidential Council, and not only talk to them about the longer view in terms of the reconciliation process and progress, but also their reaction and their handling of the further bombing of the mosque and taking down of the two minarets. 
 
            So I think this is my fifth trip in six months. And so it's just a continuing opportunity to stay in personal touch with our key players out here.
 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, will you have any particular message for the Iraqi leaders, in particular with regard to reconciliation measures and legislation?
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, it will be the same message I've been delivering since December, since my first trip out here, and that is that our troops are buying them time to pursue reconciliation; that, frankly, we're disappointed with the progress so far and hope that this most recent bombing by al Qaeda won't further disrupt or delay the process and that they can continue working on both legislation and efforts from the ground up to build reconciliation in terms of groups who are deciding to work with the government, and so on.
 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, do you believe that it's realistic for the Iraqis to accomplish some of these benchmarks on reconciliation by September? And if so, what would you like to see that do?
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think that remains to be seen. You know, we understand that there are a number of things that are reasonably close, that with some will on the part of the different parties could be accomplished. Clearly, one of the purposes of my visit, that of John Negroponte a couple of days ago, is to encourage them to make that progress.
 
            You know, I mean, the fifth brigade only arrived on the ground a few days ago, and so I think, first of all, in terms of the security situation, it remains to be seen where we'll be in September. But clearly, there's enormous interest in their ability to make progress and demonstrating to the Iraqi people that they are prepared to lay the foundations for a future Iraqi state in which all of the different elements can live in peace with one another. I think that opportunity is still open.
 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, there's been a lot of criticism on the Hill that the generals may be being too optimistic about their assessment of what's going in Iraq. What do you think of that? And do you think at this point September may be too soon for any type of real assessment?
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think we should have a sense of direction in September. I mean, it may still be -- there still will be a lot of uncertainty, but I think we'll have some sense of direction and trends on where things are headed.
 
            Are the generals too optimistic? I think they've been very realistic. I remember when I was in my trip here last month, when General Petraeus and I were flying over Baghdad. I mean, clearly there are problems, but at the same time, we were flying over markets that were open. We were flying over an amusement park, where one of these amusement park trains was running, and that was the first time that train had apparently run in months.
 
            And so it's a very mixed picture, and I think calling attention to the fact that in some areas things are actually a little better and looking pretty good, while they're very difficult in other areas, is not unrealistic.
 
            And I think that General Petraeus has been honest about that. He's the one that's been talking about "it's going to get tougher before it gets better." So I think that, you know, he gives -- I think he gives an honest appraisal.
 
            And I mentioned in one -- in a press conference or press availability a few weeks ago seeing a piece on one of the network news shows about five different neighborhoods in Baghdad were coffee shops were open, children were in playgrounds and things like that. 
 
            So it's a very mixed picture, and I think that -- I think that's what General Petraeus has conveyed. I think it's a realistic view. He has not pulled his punches at all in terms of the difficulty of the struggle in front of us, in terms of the obstacles to both reconciliation and greater security in the -- both in the Baghdad area and in Iraq as a whole.
 
            So I have every confidence in General Petraeus and also in his ability and willingness to call it like he sees it. And I think that'll be an honest appraisal.
 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, there are a number of Iraqis especially who believe that the Maliki government is irrelevant. How much confidence do you have in his government and in him himself?
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, in some respects, what we're seeing in Iraq is a healthy thing. It's called politics. And you know, I think Prime Minister Maliki is facing some enormous obstacles. He's worked closely with us. He's reaching out to others in the Presidential Council and working with them.
 
            So I think it's an evolving process. And you know, as I've said on the Hill on a number of occasions, this is a government where none of the members had ever held a responsible position 15 or 18 months ago. They'd been in opposition or in exile. They had no experience in governance. You're dealing with a country where the Sunnis had suppressed the Shi'a for a very long time. There's obviously deep-seated suspicion among these various groups, and trying to bring all that together would be a challenge. And I think that Prime Minister Maliki is trying to address that challenge as well as he can, and I think he deserves our support.
 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, have you thought beyond this phase to what the United States might do if that process just proves too difficult for the Iraqis, at least in any sort of time frame that the U.S. people and Congress are willing to accept?
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, I told the Congress four months ago that I would be irresponsible if I weren't thinking about different alternatives in terms of our posture in Iraq. And we're always looking at this kind of thing, but right now we have a strategy. General Petraeus is implementing that strategy, and all of our efforts are focused on trying to make that strategy work. 
 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, could you tell us a little bit about what metrics you'll be examining come September to determine if the surge has been working? 
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, there are, I think, something like 18 metrics in the supplemental that was passed, and so we'll obviously be looking at all of those. But I think we'll also be looking at this ground-up effort, just as has happened in Anbar. I've had a concern with both that you all have heard me talk about before, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, that perhaps we've gotten too focused on the central government and not enough on the provinces and on the tribes and what's happening in those areas. And so I think we'll take a look at that in terms of the kind of cooperation that has led to the dramatic reduction in violence in Al Anbar. 
 
            I mean, you know, you all remember as well as I do that last -- you probably remember better, because you were here and I wasn't -- that last fall Anbar was written off. And it's a very different scene today, so I think that we'll just have to wait and see. But I think that some of these local developments deserve our attention, as well as sort of national legislation benchmarks as well. 
 
            I guess you get the last word, Jim. 
 
            Q     Thank you. 
 
            You've talked about this South Korean model for Iraq, about protracted U.S. military presence there. But what I'm wondering is, how do you get to that if this surge doesn't work? I mean, how can you make that transition? 
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, you know, in a way, maybe too much has been made of the Korean model. What we're looking at is working with the Iraqis in terms of, what is their interest in a long-term security relationship with the United States that kind of continues the train-and-equip, and in which we partner in establishing security and a broad-based government in Baghdad. 
 
            The reason that I think Tony Snow and I, and others, have referred to the Korean model is more that it's a model of a long-term relationship between two sovereign states in which there are rules governing the status of forces, and where it's a long-term relationship. It doesn't mean permanent bases. We've said repeatedly we have no interest in permanent bases in Iraq. But we are interested in what we can do to help this government over the longer term, and those are the kinds of things that would be worked out in any kind of longer-term security agreement. So it's really been more a reference to how do we evolve this relationship, how do we transition the security responsibility to the Iraqis while we are still there to provide them some help, in terms that we have mutually negotiated. 
 
            STAFF: All right, folks, thanks very much.
 
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