Gates Discusses Future Of Military Presence In Iraq

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is in Iraq Thursday on what could be his last visit to the country as the head of the U.S. military. One issue still facing the secretary is whether American troops will remain in Iraq after this year.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

We've been so focused lately on fighting in Libya, but we're going to begin this hour checking in on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a moment we'll look at the problem of civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

But, first, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in Iraq this week. He's talking with the country's government about the future of the U.S. military presence there.

As NPR's Rachel Martin reports from Baghdad, U.S. troops are supposed to be out by the end of this year, but if Iraq asks, they could stay longer.

RACHEL MARTIN: Secretary Gates has been to Iraq so many times, he's lost count.

ROBERT GATES: I don't know how many trips I've made to Iraq. I guess maybe 14, something like that. And this will probably be my last one. And I just wanted to come and say thank you.

MARTIN: Gates talked to close to 200 U.S. troops at Camp Liberty at U.S. command headquarters in Baghdad. This is the fourth time members of this particular brigade have deployed to Iraq. And when Gates took questions from the group, one soldier wanted to know if there could be another deployment.

BLOCK: A few weeks ago, sir, I read that our contracts might be extended past 2011. Any word on that, sir?

GATES: In terms of our military presence here?

Unidentified Woman: Yes, sir.

GATES: That's basically a decision for the Iraqi government to make.

MARTIN: The U.S. has already withdrawn roughly 100,000 forces from Iraq. The remaining 47,000 are scheduled to come out by the end of the year. But Gates said some U.S. troops may stay beyond that if the Iraqis want them to.

GATES: We are willing to have a presence beyond that time. But we've got a lot of commitments around the world, you know. 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.

MARTIN: 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. General Lloyd Austin, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq offered an example of one mission that the Americans lead.

LLOYD AUSTIN: We're running the fence of the skies right now and we take our radars away that the - that don't exist anymore and that creates a kind of a gap and the ability to see the skies, much less, defend against a threat there.

MARTIN: Austin says there's also still a threat from al-Qaida.

AUSTIN: They are still here. They still have capability and we saw that play itself out here the other day in Tikrit.

MARTIN: General Austin's referring there to an attack about a week ago in the north of the country that killed close to 60 people. Al-Qaida claimed responsibility. Another challenge, the new Iraqi government hasn't yet filled two top national security positions.

So, there are these outstanding issues. The Iraqi security forces still need help, a possible al-Qaida threat, and political disarray. Despite all that, U.S. military officials say the difference between Iraq at its worst and now is night and day. That's how Gates described it when he talked with U.S. troops today at Camp Liberty.

GATES: This has been an extraordinary success story for the United States military.

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

GATES: 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 to where it is today.

MARTIN: Where Iraq is today isn't clear. Somewhere between that, quote, extraordinary success story...

Unidentified Man: Twenty feet, go, engage, huh.

MARTIN: And not safe enough to leave.

BLOCK: I command to fall out.

MARTIN: Rachel Martin, NPR News, Baghdad.

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