Gates sees narrower role for US troops in Iraq
Avoid rapid shifts, key general warns
BAGHDAD - Defense Secretary Robert Gates said yesterday that he foresees a shrinking US combat role in Iraq in coming months, while the number two US commander here cautioned that it would be a mistake to push the American-trained Iraqi army and police into a leading security role too soon.
"I'm not sure that pushing them forward is the right thing that we want to do. We tried that once before and found that that didn't work," Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin told reporters, referring to the pre-2007 US strategy, which focused on quickly handing off security responsibility to the Iraqis while reducing US presence. That approach faltered, leaving Iraq on the brink of all-out civil war before President Bush switched strategies and put General David Petraeus in charge in Baghdad.
Austin said key measures of insurgent violence today are about 80 percent lower than one year ago.
Petraeus is scheduled today to pass command to his successor, Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, who served for 15 months as the number two US commander here before leaving in February. Odierno will be promoted to four-star rank before the change-of-command ceremony.
Gates, who planned to preside at the ceremony, told reporters traveling with him on a flight from Washington that conditions have improved enough to continue the process of handing responsibility to the Iraqi security forces. Last week he told Congress that the war was now in the "endgame," with US forces drawing back to a secondary role.
Despite progress, sporadic violence continues. Yesterday, a suicide bomber blew herself up among police officers who were celebrating the release of a comrade from US custody, killing at least 22 people, Iraqi officials said. The attack took place in Diyala, a province northeast of Baghdad. Separate bombings in Iraq killed 13 other people.
Although no additional US combat brigades are scheduled to withdraw from Iraq this year under a plan unveiled by Bush last week, Gates told reporters that he expects the US combat role to keep shrinking.
"We are clearly in a mission transition," he said. "The areas in which we are seriously engaged [in fighting] will, I think, continue to narrow."
Austin's remarks in a separate interview with reporters did not contradict Gates. But the general was more cautious, saying that although security is better, it remains fragile.
"You can rush to failure here if you're not careful," Austin said. "You really have to make sure that all the elements are in place to guarantee sustainable security - the army, the police, the border enforcement agencies."
The biggest uncertainty at the moment, Austin said, is the central government's inability to pass the legislation needed to hold provincial elections across the country before the end of the year.
Gates met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq and other senior government officials. He also spoke with an array of Iraqi military and local government leaders from the Rashid district of south Baghdad and heard assurances that they are cooperating to resettle citizens - both Shi'ites and Sunnis - who were displaced by the sectarian violence. They also pledged to work together on other thorny issues.
Also yesterday, the Pentagon formally announced that a Marine Air-Ground task force, including the Third Battalion, Eighth Marine Regiment, will go to Afghanistan in November to replace the two Marine units there now. The battalion is based at Camp Lejeune, N.C. The two units now in Afghanistan total nearly 3,900 Marines.