Amid an 80-percent drop in violence and with further withdrawals of U.S. forces in sight, the coalition in Iraq has reached the "endgame," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today.
"I believe we have now entered that endgame – and our decisions today and in the months ahead will be critical to regional stability and our national security interests for years to come," he told the Senate Armed Service Committee during a hearing on Iraq and Afghanistan.
Highlighting success in Iraq are reductions in U.S. casualties and overall violence, and the handover of Anbar province this month to Iraqi authority. Anbar, the 11th of 18 provinces now under Iraqi control, once was a hotbed of the Sunni insurgency and the scene of some of the war's most contentious fighting.
In testimony the secretary submitted to lawmakers, he cited other measures of progress, including "incremental but significant" progress by the Iraqi parliament and -- with the exception of Iran -- an increased willingness on the part of Iraq's neighboring countries to engage with Baghdad and help to stabilize the country.
But Gates tempered his analysis, saying serious challenges remain, including the failure of Iraq's parliament to pass an election law, which likely will delay a planned election until December and could increase the possibility of politically motivated violence.
"Our military commanders do not yet believe our gains are necessarily enduring, and they believe that there are still many challenges and the potential for reversals in the future," he said.
The secretary characterized the situation in Iraq as fragile, but said current conditions mark vast improvements since early 2007, when Gates became Pentagon chief.
"When I entered office, the main concern was to halt and reverse the spiraling violence in order to prevent a strategic calamity for the United States and allow the Iraqis to make progress on the political, economic and security fronts," he said. "Although we all have criticisms of the Iraqi government, there can be no doubt that the situation is much different – and far better – than it was in early 2007."
The secretary credited Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the former commander in Iraq who oversaw a 33,000-troop surge and the ensuing drop in violence there, with a "brilliant performance" during his nearly 20-month tenure. Petraeus last week relinquished command of Multinational Force Iraq to Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno and will take charge of U.S. Central Command in October.
Further, Gates called the relationship between Petraeus and U.S. Ambasador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker a superb model of military-civilian partnership.
"Beyond their own brilliant individual performances, the Petraeus-Crocker team ... [is] one that should be studied and emulated for years to come," the secretary said.
Earlier this month, Gates accepted recommendations on the way forward in Iraq from Petraeus and from Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, commander of NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, Army Lt. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, acting CentCom commander, and the service chiefs.
"Although each viewed the challenges from a different perspective, weighing different factors, all once again arrived at similar recommendations," Gates said.
After receiving recommendations from the Defense Department, President Bush this month announced that some 8,000 U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Iraq by February without being replaced. This announcement comes after the drawdown of the five Army brigade combat teams, two Marine battalions and the Marine expeditionary unit that were sent to Iraq as part of the surge.
Meanwhile, withdrawal of 3,400 noncombat forces – including aviation personnel, explosive ordnance teams, combat and construction engineers, military police, and logistics support teams – began this month, will continue through the fall and will be completed in January, Gates said. In addition, a Marine battalion stationed in Anbar will return in November, and another Army brigade combat team will return by early February.
"The bottom-line point is that the drawdowns associated with the president's announcements do not wait until January or February, but in fact have begun," Gates said, calling the planned reductions an "acceptable risk today" that preserves a broad range of options for the next president. He added that the withdrawals "also provide for unforeseen circumstances in the future."
Gates said the continuing drawdowns are possible because of the success in reducing violence and building Iraqi security capacity. "Even with fewer U.S. troops in Iraq, the positive trends of the last year have held – and in some cases steadily continued in the right direction," he said.
The secretary urged that American leaders implement "cautious and flexible" strategies, and to expect to be involved in Iraq for years to come, albeit in changing and increasingly limited ways.
"As we proceed deeper into the endgame, I would urge our nation's leaders to implement strategies that, while steadily reducing our presence in Iraq, are cautious and flexible and take into account the advice of our senior commanders and military leaders," he said.
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