Gates says Iraqi political progress key to future of U.S. military buildup
Stressing the limits of U.S. patience, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday the Bush administration will weigh Iraq's political progress in deciding this summer whether to bring home some of the U.S. troops.
"Our commitment to Iraq is long-term, but it is not a commitment to have our young men and women patrolling Iraq's streets open-endedly," Gates told U.S. and Iraqi reporters at a news conference in the capital.
The U.S. troop buildup is still under way, with mixed results on security and an upward trend in U.S. combat deaths in Baghdad. A series of major attacks in Baghdad over the past week, killing hundreds of Iraqi civilians, have undermined what U.S. military officials had seen as early promising signs of reduced sectarian violence.
Democrats have seized on Gates' recent remarks as contrary to the White House position. While administration officials have said Democrats are hurting the war effort, Gates said Tuesday the debate in Congress on the war has been helpful in letting Iraqi politicians know the clock is ticking.
"Unlike some in your administration who have been playing politics by criticizing the debate in Congress over responsible timelines, Secretary Gates recognizes that debating the timelines is constructive because it exerts pressure on Iraq's leaders to forge political compromises," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other House Democratic leaders wrote in a letter to Bush.
Pelosi's letter said Bush "must acknowledge what the facts are" to work cooperatively with Congress.
Gates, on his third trip to Iraq since becoming Pentagon chief last December, said he encouraged the Iraqis to pass legislation on political reconciliation and the sharing of oil revenues among the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. He told the Iraqis he hopes their Council of Representatives would not recess for the summer without passing the legislation.
Their action on these measures will be considered when he and top U.S. commanders review the military buildup later this summer, Gates told them. But he would not provide details when asked what the U.S. would do if the Iraqis fail to meet those goals.
"The fact is that, as I indicated, progress in reconciliation will be an important element in our evaluation in the late summer," Gates said. "And I think that's as far as I need to go on that point."
In Washington, a close monitor of events in Iraq, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Gates was right to press the Iraqis on the importance of getting early results.
"The message that Secretary Gates gave to the Iraqis is an all-too-real warning of the limits of the U.S. political system," Cordesman said in an e-mail exchange. "The practical problem is that the Iraqi political system has its own limits and the divisions between Iraqis are growing, not diminishing."
Gates declined to reveal details of his nearly three-hour meeting Friday with his top commanders. He said they discussed the late-summer evaluation of the Baghdad security plan, but insisted there was no discussion of a timeline.
"We do need some time to try and make this work," Gates said. "I think that it's not a surprise that the results are mixed at this point and there may be, there probably will be tough days to come.... I am modestly optimistic that at least in terms of the military operations, we will see steady progress."
Gates' stern remarks to the Iraqis reflected the Bush administration's efforts to strike a balance between reassuring the Iraqis of U.S. support and pressuring their leaders to use this opportunity to show they can bring the country together and avert a full-scale civil war.
Bush hinged his new Iraq strategy not only on the troop buildup but also on the prospect that the Iraqis would demonstrate they can reconcile the sectarian divisions.
Gates said it is clear "there is the desire on the part of the presidential council and on the part of the prime minister to work very hard to try and bring about successful passage of these laws."
But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also reminded Gates that the council is an independent body.
In a statement from his office, al-Maliki said, "The main problem suffered by Iraq is political, not a security one." His office also said the prime minister is optimistic Iraqis will overcome their sectarian, ethnic and political differences.
At the news conference with Gates, Iraq Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obaidi said the Iraqis are making progress in countering the insurgency.
"Our need for support is getting less and less each day," he said.
Gates said he was modestly optimistic about progress in combatting the violence. However, he said, "There probably will be tough days to come."
Gates said the U.S. troop buildup will continue at least until late summer. "We will need some time for things to work," he said.
He assured al-Maliki the U.S. remains committed to the Iraqi government and the Baghdad security plan.
And he rejected Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's assessment on Thursday that the war was already lost and the troop buildup was not stemming violence in Iraq. "I respectfully disagree," Gates said when a reporter asked him about Reid's remarks.
Gates' unannounced stop in Iraq began Thursday, and throughout the visit he took a decidedly stronger tone, warning the troubled nation's leaders that American patience is wearing thin and urging them to quickly unite their warring factions.
The defense secretary had planned to take a look Friday at a key piece of the Bush administration's new anti-insurgency strategy, a joint US-Iraq security post where American and Iraqi forces live and work together to try to stop the violence that is ripping Baghdad. That tour, however, was abruptly canceled because the meeting with his commanders ran long.
"It had nothing to do with security and everything to do with the fact that the meeting was more important than the brief visit to the (Joint Security Station)," Gates said.