Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Coalition Has Entered 'Endgame' in Iraq, Gates Says

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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Face of Defense: Soldier Leads by Being Part of Team

During a World War II battle in Holtzwihr, France, a wounded U.S. soldier climbed into a burning tank, took a spot behind a .50-caliber machine gun and fired until the enemy was vanquished.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Ernest Oberst watches the soldiers in his platoon conduct vehicle inspections northwest of Baghdad. U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. J.B. Jaso III, Multinational Division Baghdad
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

At the age of 19, Audie Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honor, and to this day, he inspires military leaders and soldiers – especially Army Sgt. 1st Class Ernest Oberst.

"As a kid, I used to watch the Audie Murphy biography 'To Hell and Back' on TV, and I wanted to be a soldier. He was my hero," Oberst said.

Oberst joined the Army three months after graduating from high school in Gladstone, Mich.

Now a platoon sergeant in Multinational Division Baghdad with 1st Platoon, Company B, 52nd Infantry Regiment, attached to the 25th Infantry Division's 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Oberst is responsible for the 33 soldiers in his platoon. He takes care of administrative paperwork, leads patrols, makes sure each soldier has the right equipment and takes care of any issues that may arise, whether personal or work related.

"I do anything a mom or dad does," he said jokingly.

Oberst has served in the Army for 14 years, and said he believes the best way to lead his soldiers is by setting an example for them and sharing the load.

"You can't just supervise; you have to be a part of the team," he said. "If my soldiers are out digging for caches, you won't find me sitting in the truck. I'm an able body that can work, and I'll be out there digging with them."

His soldiers describe him as a well-rounded leader who maintains discipline and has the ability of doing the right thing at the right time, every time.

"No matter what the mission is, Oberst is the first one on the ground and the last one back in the vehicle. That's just his style," Army Cpl. Zachary Manuel said. Sgt. Lucas Collins said Oberst will give any soldier a chance to succeed.

"When I came into this unit, I had two blown-out knees," said Collins, a team leader. "In the infantry, you are looked at as done. I was going to be chaptered out, but he gave me the chance to get better."

Three years later, Collins is awaiting promotion to staff sergeant and said a great amount of what he's learned is attributable to Oberst.

"He has shown me that taking care of my soldiers is No. 1," he said. "And if something needs to be done, make sure it gets done." Oberst not only makes sure the job gets done, but also ensures the job gets done right the first time, Collins added.

"He requires the best out of his men and expects nothing less," Manuel said. "For that reason, he gets the best."

Author Army Pfc. Lyndsey Dransfield serves in Multinational Division Baghdad with the 25th Infantry Division's 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs Office.
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