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Gates prods Iraqi government to move faster

Defense Secretary Robert Gates gave the Iraqi government a gentle prod Tuesday to move faster toward political reconciliation during the American troop buildup in Baghdad.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Defense Secretary Robert Gates hinted Tuesday at American impatience with the pace of Iraqi political reconciliation, more than four months into the U.S. troop buildup.

“We would certainly be happier if there were faster progress on the political front,” Gates said. He noted that the Iraqis missed a May 31 deadline for passing an energy law — one of many political obstacles yet to be overcome.

Gates did not directly criticize the Iraqis but his comments underscored the Bush administration’s concern that they establish a government of national unity — seen as the key to stability — before the U.S. public’s dissatisfaction with the war effort reaches the point where a troop pullout cannot be avoided.

The draft hydrocarbons law, which sets ground rules for Iraqi oil policy, must be endorsed by Iraq’s cabinet and then go to the parliament for final approval, said Oil Ministry spokesman Assem Jihad.

“We hope the ratification of this law will be achieved no more than one month from now,” Jihad told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “This law is considered a major national project and achievement.”

Gates was asked whether it appeared to him that U.S. and Iraqi forces were making slower-than-expected progress in establishing security in Baghdad neighborhoods, as news reports have indicated in recent days. He said he had not seen any early projections by Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, of how many neighborhoods were expected to be cleared of insurgents by this point.

Gates: I can't judge
“So I’m not in a position to judge whether that is faster or slower than General Petraeus anticipated,” he said. “If it’s slower it’s clearly because al-Qaida and others are trying to make as much difficulty as possible for us and for the Iraqi government.”

Gates, who spoke at a joint news conference with Kyrgyz Defense Minister Ismail Isakov, later flew to Paris for the first visit to the French capital by an American secretary of defense since October 1997.

That long stretch reflects the aggravation President Bush’s first defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld, felt toward a French government that he believed was eager to block U.S. initiatives. Bush replaced Rumsfeld with Gates last December.

Gates held talks with France’s new defense minister, Herve Morin, and at a joint news conference afterward they both underscored the importance of improving relations with Russia. Gates made a point of saying he and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice both have doctoral degrees in Russian and Soviet studies.

“And we are both puzzled,” he said, “by what the Russians are doing.”

Morin said it was important to talk to the Russians about their objections to a U.S. plan to establish missile defense bases in Poland and the Czech Republic — a proposal the Russians consider an affront to their security.

“We wish to have constructive dialogue with our Russian friends,” especially on the future of Kosovo, Morin told reporters, adding, “We have to talk about especially the anti-missile shield that the Americans want to deploy.”

On Wednesday, Gates and Morin were traveling to Normandy to attend ceremonies commemorating the 63rd anniversary of the D-Day landings at Omaha Beach that cracked Nazi Germany’s grip on western Europe.

General: Full surge hasn't started
Petraeus, meanwhile, said it was too early to judge whether the U.S. counterinsurgency push, which required the addition of about 30,000 U.S. troops, is working. “We haven’t even started the surge, the full surge, yet so I’ll answer that in September,” when he is to report to Washington on the operation, he said.

“In about two weeks or so we’ll have all of the forces for the surge, all the combat forces, on the ground and you’re going to see the launch of a number of different operations in a number of areas to go after al-Qaida and other extremist elements,” Petraeus said in an interview aired Tuesday on CBS’ “The Early Show.”

Since the troop buildup began in January, the U.S. casualty rate has increased substantially.

And Gates said the Iraqi security forces are suffering casualties at twice the rate of U.S. forces.

“Their willingness to fight and die for their country is not in doubt,” he said.

Petraeus “has been pretty clear from the beginning that this was going to be a difficult process,” Gates said, referring to the counterinsurgency campaign.

Gates stopped in Bishkek to consult with Kyrgyz officials about the U.S. use of an air base outside the capital, where U.S. cargo and refueling planes are stationed for operations related to the war in Afghanistan.