Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Defense Secretary Arrives in Baghdad

By DAVID S. CLOUD
Published: December 20, 2006
The New York Times


BAGHDAD, Iraq, Dec. 20—Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived in Baghdad today and said he expected to “learn a lot” in his first talks with American commanders and Iraqi officials since taking office.

“The whole purpose is to go to talk to commanders, talk to the Iraqis and see what I can learn,” Mr. Gates told reporters traveling on his airplane.

His visit to Iraq only two days after taking over from former Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld reflected the intense focus on Iraq strategy by the Bush administration, which is weighing an American troop surge and other options for restoring security in Baghdad and other areas of the country.

Mr. Gates was scheduled to have several meetings with Gen. John P. Abizaid and Gen. George W. Casey, Jr., and other top American commanders, during his first day in Baghdad. He is expected to see Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki later in his visit.

His trip, like those of all senior American officials since 2003, was not announced beforehand for security reasons.

Also today, the military announced that General Abizaid plans to go ahead with his overdue retirement next spring. Since General Casey is also likely to step down around then, Mr. Gates will have the opportunity to reshape the top ranks of commanders overseeing Iraq at the same time that a new strategy is adopted.

Capt. Gary E. Arasin Jr., a spokesman for Central Command in Tampa, Fla, said today that Mr. Rumsfeld asked General Abizaid last spring to stay on until March 2007, beyond the usual term in that position. “He does not intend to extend beyond that period,” Captain Arasin said.

As Mr. Gates left Washington for Baghdad, there were already other indications that the replacement of Mr. Rumsfeld is affecting Bush administration policy.

President Bush told the Washington Post in an interview Tuesday that he favors increasing the size of the United States military, a move that Mr. Rumsfeld had long opposed. Mr. Bush said he had told Mr. Gates to develop a plan for boosting troop levels, which follows public complaints by top generals that Iraq and other deployments have stretched American forces too thin.

Mr. Gates has given few indications about his views on the strategy options under consideration, except to say that an American failure in Iraq could lead to a wider regional conflict in the Middle East.

"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 Mr. Gates, said at the ceremony.

Mr. Bush has put off a speech on his strategy decisions until next month, in part he said to give Mr. Gates time to formulate his views.

Joining him on his trip to Iraq was Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and senior aides from the Pentagon, the White House staff, the State Department and the office of Vice President Dick Cheney.

Mr. Gates traveled to Baghdad earlier this year as a member of the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan panel created by Congress to recommend a new Iraq strategy. But he resigned from the panel after his nomination and before it issued its recommendations last month.

Its recommendations include phasing out most American combat troops by early 2008, increasing training for Iraqis and talks with Iran and Syria in hopes of curtailing the violence.

At his swearing-in ceremony earlier this week, Mr. Gates promised to rely on advice from military commanders in comments that were widely seen as a signal to uniformed services that his style would differ from that of Mr. Rumsfeld. He was often criticized for overriding the views of senior military commanders.

General Casey is formulating a plan to dramatically boost the number of American advisers attached to Iraqi units, a move aimed at improving the Iraqis’ performance over the next year, officials have said.

Additional trainers are already being drawn from American combat units in Iraq. Still under discussion is how large to make the training teams, which now have between 4,000 and 6,000 personnel, officials said.

Senior commanders and members of the Joint Chiefs have not publicly endorsed increasing American force levels in Iraq by 20,000 or more in a short-term surge aimed at restoring security. Gen. James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, said recently that the chiefs would back a troop increase if it was accompanied with a plan for using the forces effectively.

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