SEC. GATES: Let me just say very briefly, I think, in a way, you have seen two examples of [inaudible] in Iraq, first landing at Al Assad, and seeing how much of that gigantic base is essentially deserted at this point. That base was at one point home for some 22,000 Marines, and now you saw how empty it is.
The other actually was reflected in the questions we heard here today – they really weren't about security or issues relating to Iraq so much as they were about their own situations and plans going forward. So I think both of those are an indication of just how far we've come in the last [inaudible] and where we are today as we move into Operation New Dawn. So with that, I'll take a couple of questions.
Q Mr. Secretary, would you say we still at war in Iraq?
SEC. GATES: No, I would say we're not. Combat operations have ceased. We are still going to work with the Iraqis on counterterrorism. We're still doing a lot of training and advising and assisting. That's what this brigade is all about. So I would say we've moved into the final phase of our engagement in Iraq.
Q Mr. Secretary, as you mark this change, do you believe the Iraq war was worth it?
SEC. GATES: Well, I've been asked that question a lot since December 2006. And I think that it really -- it really requires an historian's perspective in terms of what happens here in the long term. I would just pick up off of the remarks that I made at the American Legion. If we -- if Iraq ends up a democratic country, that is a constructive participant in international life, then I think looking back, although the cost of getting there would've been terrible, as I said yesterday, the potential for it being the core of significant change in this whole region as a democratic state, I think is hard to underestimate.
I think that where we are today, that our men and women in uniform believe we have accomplished something that makes the sacrifice and the bloodshed not to have been in vain, that we have accomplished -- that our men and women in uniform have accomplished something really quite extraordinary here.
How it all weighs in the balance over time, I think remains to be seen.
Q Mr. Secretary [inaudible] clarify that. And if -- does it require of Iraq to be a democratic state for this to be in the U.S. national security interest, this war to have benefited U.S. national security?
SEC. GATES: Well, the problem -- the problem with this war for, I think, many Americans is that the premise on which we justified going to war proved not to be valid -- that is, Saddam having weapons of mass destruction.
So when you start from that standpoint, then figuring out in retrospect how you deal with the war, even if the outcome is a good one from the standpoint of the United States, it will always be clouded by how it began. And so I think that this is one of the reasons why this war remains so controversial at home. But there is no -- there can be no disagreement, and I think as the president said in his speech, with what has been achieved here by our men and women in uniform.
Q And so one of the questions today was --
Q [inaudible] President Bush [inaudible].
SEC. GATES: No.
Q I had a second question. What are the chances of Iraq turning out the way we [inaudible]? Are you hopeful at all?
SEC. GATES: I'm actually -- I'm actually optimistic. I think, as the vice president likes to say, politics have broken out here. And despite the months of delay in forming a coalition, these guys are politicking; they're not shooting at each other. And the efforts of al-Qaeda to reignite the sectarian violence that we saw in 2006 and 2007 have not been successful.
So I am -- I guess I would have to say I'm optimistic that these guys will get a coalition government and that they will continue to make progress. This is -- this is going to be a work in progress for a long time. This is a new thing in the several-thousand-year history of Iraq, and it's a pretty new thing in this region of the world. But I think -- I think they're off to a -- I think they're off to a good start.
Q Mr. Secretary, does it make sense for the United States to have less troops in Iraq at the end of 2011 than we do in Italy or in -- where there's 9,000-plus troops? Does going to zero make strategic sense to the United States?
SEC. GATES: Well, I don't -- I think the question is moot because that's the agreement that was established between the Iraqi government and the Bush administration. That was the arrangement we settled on with the Iraqis and that's where it stands, and that would change, in my opinion, only if a new Iraqi government chose to reopen that.
Q But would that be positive in this case?
SEC. GATES: It doesn't -- I think without any indication that it will change, we just deal with the reality [inaudible], that we're going to be at zero.
Q That was one of the questions one of the soldiers asked today. What about after 2011? In the last months there have been Iraqi military leaders who have gone out publicly saying that they expect the security agreement to be renegotiated, they expect a long presence of forces and some American leaders have said they've heard that chatter from the Iraqis. Has that reached you? What is the status of that -- the military-to-military talks about what could happen?
SEC. GATES: There have really not been. I mean, I don't know what informal conversations have taken place, but certainly on a formal level and certainly with any authority, there have been no discussions. And we are planning on being out of here at the end of 2011.
Q Do you think that it has to come from the new -- the next government, and why not from the [inaudible]?
SEC. GATES: No, I think -- well, there is no current government; there's a caretaker government. So it really -- it does -- I mean, if there were to be an initiative, I think first of all, I think the issue would be controversial here in Iraq, and so I think a new government would have to think about how it would approach that kind of initiative.
Q [Inaudible] -- going to have 50,000 troops. Is there any danger, do you think, that as far as the American public is concerned [inaudible] that the continuing campaign here is [inaudible]?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think, as I said to the American Legion, our attention clearly has shifted to Afghanistan, it is our priority, but one of the things that I give the president credit for is, in fact, some while ago designating the vice president to be in charge of looking after the Iraq account, if you will. So with that kind of senior-level attention in the government, the vice president brings the principals together on a regular basis to talk about what's going on in Iraq, to talk about the transition to the State Department and police training and various other things, to talk about what these advisory and assist brigades are going to be doing.
So I think, I think that the president's action in asking the vice president to take this on as his charge to monitor for the president ensures that we won't neglect Iraq over the next year or so.
Q What would you say to Iraqis who say, as many do, the Americans blew in here with all their troops, they knocked down the government that we had and they're now leaving -- or you're ending combat operations -- leaving us still without a functioning government, leaving a country that still has suicide bombings every other day and a country that, as Iraqis experience it, is still a mess.
How would you answer that?
SEC. GATES: Well, I would say, first of all, that the American people have given a lot. They've given a lot in lives and in wounded soldiers. We've given a lot, enormous amount in terms of money and I think, frankly, that the Iraqis have had a functioning government. What's been impressive is during these months of a caretaker government that the Iraqi security services continue to do their job, there continues to be the flow of electricity. They've got periodic problems, but partly that's because the demand has skyrocketed, but I think the basic services that existed before the election have continued to operate. So I think at this point it's really the Iraqis' responsibility.
This is a rich country. They have the resources. And so it's a question of getting their government together and then moving on to solve the problems they have in front of them. Every government in the world has problems right now; the Iraqi government isn't unique in that respect. But they, at least, have a lot of resources to be able to address these issues.
STAFF: Okay. Thanks, you guys.
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