NPR logo Gates: Troops Could Stay Past End Date In Iraq


Gates: Troops Could Stay Past End Date In Iraq

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates talks with troops from the U.S. Army 25th Infantry Division from Hawaii during a visit at Camp Victory in Baghdad on Thursday. Chip Somodevilla/AP hide caption

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Chip Somodevilla/AP

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates talks with troops from the U.S. Army 25th Infantry Division from Hawaii during a visit at Camp Victory in Baghdad on Thursday.

Chip Somodevilla/AP

The Obama administration would keep U.S. troops in Iraq beyond Dec. 31 if the Iraqi government wanted them, but the Iraqis need to decide "pretty quickly" in order for the Pentagon to accommodate an extension of the final withdrawal date, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday.

Whether to negotiate an extended U.S. military presence is up to the Iraqis, he said in Baghdad, adding that he thought an extension might make sense.

"We are willing to have a presence beyond [2011], but we've got a lot of commitments," he said, not only in Afghanistan and Libya but also in Japan, where he said 19 U.S. Navy ships and about 18,000 U.S. military personnel are assisting in earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor relief efforts.

Gates (center) and Gen. Lloyd Austin (right), commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, arrive for a meeting at the Al Faw Palace. Chip Somodevilla/AP hide caption

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Chip Somodevilla/AP

Gates (center) and Gen. Lloyd Austin (right), commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, arrive for a meeting at the Al Faw Palace.

Chip Somodevilla/AP

"So if folks here are going to want us to have a presence, we're going to need to get on with it pretty quickly in terms of our planning," he added. "I think there is interest in having a continuing presence. The politics are such that we'll just have to wait and see because the initiative ultimately has to come from the Iraqis."

Keeping U.S. troops in Iraq beyond 2011 could be politically risky for the Obama administration, which has promised to bring an end to U.S. military operations here. At the same time, U.S. military commanders say leaving now could put Iraqi security forces in charge before they're ready.

Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top American commander in Iraq, said the country is lacking important security capabilities.

"We're running the defense of the skies right now," he said. "We take our radars away — that doesn't exist anymore and that creates kind of a gap in the ability to see the skies, much less to defend against a threat there."

Austin said there's also still a threat from al-Qaida.

"They are still here. They still have capability and we saw that play itself out here the other day in Tikrit," he said, referring to an attack in the north of the country that killed almost 60 people. Al-Qaida claimed responsibility.

Asked in an interview whether all Iraqi government officials are aware of these gaps, he replied, "Some more than others."

He said the government's inability thus far to appoint a defense minister and an interior minister has hampered its ability to make informed decisions about whether to ask the Americans to stay longer.

Speaking to a group of reporters traveling with Gates, Austin gave the strong impression that he thinks Iraq needs a U.S. military presence beyond December, but he said he had not yet been asked to provide a recommendation to Washington.

He said Iraq faced the possibility of a "more violent environment" next year, given the absence of U.S. military force and the failure to resolve key political problems, like the Kurd-Arab tensions in Kirkuk and elsewhere in the north.

Despite the outstanding issues, U.S. military officials say the difference between Iraq at its worst and now is night and day.

"This has been an extraordinary success story for the United States military," Gates told close to 200 soldiers of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, at Camp Liberty in Baghdad on Thursday.

Gates first met with this brigade in 2007. Back then he was new to the job — and so were they. Gates pointed out that during that time, the brigade lost more than 100 soldiers.

"It has been a long and painful journey for everybody. But these young men and women and those who've come before them paid a terrible price to get this country where it is today," he said.

Gates told the soldiers at Camp Liberty that he worries a potential shutdown of the U.S. federal government will delay issuance of their paychecks. He assured them that they eventually would get full pay, but there could be a delay if Democrats and Republicans in Washington are unable to reach a budget deal this week.

"When I start to think of the inconvenience that it's going to cause these kids [soldiers] and a lot of their families, even a half paycheck delayed can be a problem for them," Gates told reporters after fielding several questions from the assembled soldiers. The first question posed to him was by a soldier asking about the ramifications for military members and their families of the budget crisis back home.

Gates assured them, "You will be paid," then added that it might take a while, depending on the length of the political impasse in Washington.

The U.S. now has about 47,000 troops in Iraq, and they will begin leaving in large numbers in late summer or early fall. Gates' press secretary, Geoff Morrell, said it was clear from Thursday's talks that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki does want U.S. troops to stay beyond 2011.

"It is our sense that there is a recognition on the part of Iraqi leaders that there is still a need for U.S. forces in some capacity," Morrell said.

The main problem is selling an extension to a skeptical Iraqi public. There are persistent rumors that the U.S. has ulterior motives in Iraq and wants to stay to keep a better foothold in the Middle East instead of as a backstop to Iraq's national defenses.

U.S. officials reject that outright, saying they have no desire or plan for a permanent military footprint in the country.

Maliki told Gates that he expects all U.S. troops to be out of Iraq by the end of the year as required under a 2008 security agreement between Baghdad and Washington, said Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh.

"The prime minister informed Gates that the Iraqi government does not want the presence of the American forces in their current position," al-Dabbagh told the AP after Maliki's meeting with Gates. "We think that the presence of these forces is not suitable for Iraq, and these forces have to leave by the end of 2011."

A government statement said Iraq's security forces are up to the task "to repel any aggression."

The prime minister stressed that Iraqi security forces, both the police and army, now have the capabilities to repel any aggression, and that the capabilities of our security forces to impose security and stability are constantly improving, according to the statement.

NPR's Rachel Martin contributed to this report, which contains material from The Associated Press