Gates to warn Iraqis that time is running out to delay withdrawal
BAGHDAD — Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on likely his last Iraq visit before leaving office, is expected to tell the country’s leaders that they must act soon if they want U.S. troops to remain beyond the Dec. 31 deadline to withdraw.
The secretary has no plans to accelerate the drawdown of the remaining 47,000 U.S. troops before late summer and early fall, although bases continue to be closed and equipment shipped home, according to a senior defense official speaking on condition of anonymity.
Instead, the U.S. wants to keep trainers in place for as long as possible before they, too, start funneling home.
Gates arrived Monday and will spend one day visiting troops and Iraqi leaders in Baghdad and another visiting various locations in northern Iraq. With Iraq’s security and the legacy of an eight-year war that has claimed more than 4,400 American lives hanging in the balance, Gates already has told Congress that the U.S. would consider Iraqi requests to extend the U.S. troop presence. But first, the Iraqis have to ask.
In Baghdad, however, Iraqi leadership remains disjointed following last year’s protracted post-election negotiations to form a government.
Notably, there is no minister of defense or interior for Gates to meet with on this visit.
Iraqis have been able to take over many internal security functions, such as policing, but some things remain a challenge, including air defenses, monitoring Shiite militants and the remnants of al-Qaida in Iraq, and managing Arab-Kurd tensions in the north.
The State Department will take over police training, as well as security for consulates and the hundreds of U.S. employees who will remain in country with a security cooperation office.
That transition is rife with controversial elements, including plans to employ expensive and unpopular contractors to take over many tasks from U.S. uniformed troops, including escort security details for U.S. officials and dignitaries traveling and working in Iraq.
Gates came to the Pentagon in 2008 to salvage the Iraq war effort at the same time Gen. David Petraeus was installed to start a surge of U.S. troops and a campaign to target key insurgent leaders.
Already eyeing the U.S. exit, Gates has expressed concern that Congress will not fully fund the post-conflict State Department missions in Iraq, which includes funding Iraqi Security Forces, training the Iraqi police force, setting up an American presence in the north to manage ongoing Arab-Kurd disputes, and standing up the office of security cooperation.
Violence rose last month with several attacks that killed dozens of Iraqis, many in the north, and last weekend saw a 2,000-person protest in Sulaimaniyah, in the Kurdish region, against the national government.
Earlier Wednesday, Gates made a brief stop in Saudi Arabia where he met with King Abdullah to discuss the region’s pro-democracy uprisings and Iran’s attempts to exploit the turmoil.
“It was an extremely cordial, warm meeting. I think the relationship is in a good place,” Gates said, speaking to reporters briefly upon boarding his plane to depart for Baghdad.Gates said they talked about “developments all over the region,” including Iran’s potential for disruptive influence, appeasing protesters with reforms and the U.S.-Saudi bilateral military relationship. He did not say whether they discussed Libya, specifically. Though the two leaders discussed the situation in Bahrain at length, according to Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell, Gates said he did not question Abdullah on why Saudi Arabia unexpectedly sent troops into Bahrain on March 14 to crackdown on protesters there. That move came just one day after Gates visited the capital, Manama, describing it as a model for ruling regimes willing to allow nonviolent demonstrations and negotiate democratic reforms.
Though the Saudi government largely has kept protesters off its own streets by threatening to use security forces to crack down on gatherings, Gates was expected to assure the king that the U.S. is making progress on the $60 billion arms sale announced last year that includes F-15s and helicopters, help with modernizing the Saudi navy, and upgrading and purchasing new ballistic missile defense systems, which are part of a larger regional umbrella the Pentagon is building to shield from the growing Iranian missile threat.
“All of these areas where we cooperate, none of that’s changed,” the official said. “All of these reasons for our strategic partnership are the same today as they were six months ago or a year ago, or two years ago.”