BAGHDAD, Iraq - New Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Baghdad on
Wednesday, armed with a mandate from President Bush to help forge a new Iraq war
strategy. He made the unannounced trip to the battlefront just two days after
taking over at the Pentagon.
Robert Gates speaks at the Pentagon, Monday, Dec. 18, 2006 following his
swearing in ceremony. [AP]
Gates went in pursuit of advice from his top military commanders on a new
strategy for an increasingly unpopular, costly and chaotic war - one he has
conceded the US is not winning. His trip so soon after taking office underscored
the Bush administration's effort to be seen as energetically seeking a new path
in the conflict.
"The whole purpose is to go out, listen to the commanders, talk to the
Iraqis, and see what I can learn," Gates told reporters as he boarded his
aircraft in Washington on Tuesday.
Gates and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were
scheduled to meet with US and Iraqi military and political leaders.
As they flew to Iraq, the Los Angeles Times reported that Army Gen. John P.
Abizaid, commander of US forces in the Middle East, has submitted plans to
retire and will leave his post in March.
Abizaid was among those expected to meet with Gates and Pace in Baghdad. His
four-year term as chief of the Central Command, or Centcom, was to have ended in
July but a spokesman earlier had said he agreed to stay until "early 2007" at
the request of former defense chief Donald H. Rumsfeld. The Times quoted one
recently retired Army general as saying Abizaid wanted to retire earlier, but
was blocked by Rumsfeld.
The top US commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, has indicated in recent
months that he also may not stay much beyond the end of this year.
before Gates' arrival, the US military in Iraq announced that a senior al-Qaida
leader had been arrested in Mosul on Dec. 14 and that security responsibilities
in Iraq's northern Najaf province were handed over to Iraqi forces earlier
Wednesday. It was not clear whether the announcements were timed to coincide
with Gates' visit.
On Tuesday, Bush told The Washington Post he is ready to boost the overall
size of the US military, acknowledging he agrees with recent complaints by top
generals that the forces have been stretched too thin by the worldwide campaign
against terrorists. He used no figures, but said he was asking Gates to produce
a plan for the expansion.
Gates' trip to Iraq comes with the Bush administration under intense pressure
from Congress and the American public to sort through options for a war that has
caused the deaths of more than 2,940 US troops and cost more than $300 billion.
More than three-and-a-half years after the US invasion that toppled Saddam
Hussein, the conflict now involves insurgents and bloodshed between Sunnis and
Shiites that seems on the cusp of civil war.
Bush is considering choices ranging from a short-term surge of thousands of
troops to bring the escalating violence in Baghdad and Anbar province under
control, to removing combat US forces and accelerating the training and
equipping of Iraqi security forces.
There are about 140,000 US troops in Iraq, more than a third of whom have
Gates' visit also follows the release of a grim Pentagon report that revealed
a 22 percent increase in violence in Iraq since August, and a steady decline in
confidence Iraqis have in their government.
It is Gates' first trip to Iraq as defense secretary.
He went there earlier this year as a member of the Iraq Study Group, a
bipartisan commission that spent nine months assessing the situation in Iraq. It
produced recommendations that include phasing out most US combat troops by early
2008, increasing military training for Iraqis and including Iran and Syria in
regional efforts to end the violence.
Rumsfeld resigned last month the day after Democrats swept elections to win
control of the House and Senate next year. Their triumph was powered by an
American electorate that many believe was signaling has lost patience with the
When Gates was sworn in Monday, he promised to visit Iraq "quite soon" to
hear from military leaders.
"Failure in Iraq at this juncture would be a calamity that would haunt our
nation, impair our credibility, and endanger Americans for decades to come,"
said Gates, 63.
During the ceremony at the Pentagon, Bush said Gates will bring a "fresh
perspective" to the Defense Department, and will help the country forge a new
way forward in Iraq.