Defense Secretary Robert Gates rushed back to Washington on Friday to give President Bush his advice on transforming U.S. policy in Iraq after holding three days of talks in the war zone with military and political leaders.
Gates was scheduled to see Bush at Camp David first thing Saturday morning, said Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser Stephen Hadley and deputy national security adviser J.D. Crouch, who has been coordinating Bush’s review of Iraq policy, were also to attend the discussions at the Maryland mountain retreat where Bush was spending Christmas.
As the president weighs a course correction in the increasingly unpopular war, the White House also announced that Bush would convene a meeting of his full National Security Council next Thursday while spending a few days at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. That session was not designed to arrive at final decisions, but to continue to whittle down the options, Perino said.
Major policy shift coming?
Originally aiming to unveil his new Iraq policy before Christmas, Bush has put it off until January. Perino said the announcement would come before his scheduled Jan. 23 State of the Union address, but gave no specific date.
Gates arrived in Washington on Friday night. Before leaving Baghdad, he declined to say whether he plans to recommend a short-term increase in U.S. troop levels. But he said he believes the U.S. and Iraqis have “a broad strategic agreement between the Iraqi military and Iraqi government and our military.”
“There is still some work to be done,” Gates said. “But I do expect to give a report to the president on what I’ve learned and my perceptions.”
Gates optimistic about security outlook
Speaking to reporters at Camp Victory, with the sounds of artillery fire and jet aircraft in the background, Gates said that “clearly there are more discussions that need to take place in Washington and more specific recommendations.”
He said Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, was continuing to work with Iraqi officials, with more details expected in the days ahead.
Gates said he is “quite confident that what I’ve heard from the Iraqis of their plans this week, that we will be able together, and with them in the lead, we will be able to make an improvement in the security situation in Baghdad.”
Gates also said that he does not believe there is a large split among Iraqi leaders about whether there should be an increase in U.S. troops. The issue, he said, is how the Iraqis assert their own leadership in taking charge of their own fate.
The new defense chief, who was sworn in on Monday, traveled to Iraq with a mandate to scope out a new war strategy, as the Bush administration continues to search for a way to bring the violence in the embattled country under control.
To that end, Gates shuttled back and forth across Baghdad over the last three days meeting with his military commanders and Iraqi government officials, and gathering input from U.S. troops.
Downplays tensions with Iran
On Iran, Gates told reporters there has been an increase in Naval forces in the Persian Gulf. But he denied that it was a direct reaction to any movements by Iran to pursue a nuclear program.
Instead, Gates said, the message to the Gulf countries is that the United States is going to be an enduring presence in the region.
“We’ve been here for a long time and we will be here for a long time,” he said.
Gates’ visit comes as Bush is reassessing U.S. policy in the war, which is widely opposed by the American public after 3½ years of bloodshed. Among the president’s options is whether to quickly add thousands of U.S. troops to the 140,000 already in Iraq, in hopes of stanching the escalating violence in Baghdad and elsewhere.
Flanked by Casey and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gates said he has asked Casey to confer with Iraqi military leaders and the prime minister to make specific recommendations on how to improve the security situation.
“Clearly success will only be achieved by a joint effort with Iraqis taking the lead,” he said.
Iraqis told U.S. will stay
Gates has said he did not talk about specific numbers of U.S. troops with the Iraqi officials. During his meetings here, Gates assured the Iraqis of “the steadfastness of American support.”
Gates said he discussed with the Iraqis how their government could reverse the deteriorating security problem. Besides an unrelenting insurgency, killings and kidnappings between Sunnis and Shiites are approaching civil war dimensions with U.S. and civilian casualties rising.
Gates said there are several approaches that could be used to improve security, yet offered few details.
Gates started his day Friday having breakfast with six Army soldiers with the 10th Mountain Division to discuss their mission training Iraqi troops in southern Iraq. The group is part of Task Force 2-15, which has about 400 soldiers embedded with the 4th Brigade of the 6th Iraqi Army Division.
Lt. Col. Bob Morschauser, a soldier from Fairless Hills, Pa., said the Iraqis are improving and gaining confidence. He said the U.S. troops are hoping the Iraqis will be able to operate on their own in less than a year.