Secretary Gates Takes a Look at Iraq

Defense Secretary Robert Gates spent three days in Iraq this week, meeting with senior military officials and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Saturday, he joins President Bush for further discussions of Iraq policy.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Scott Simon. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is scheduled to brief President Bush today about what he learned on his visit to Iraq. Mr. Gates was in Baghdad to consult with U.S. and Iraqi military commanders on strategies for pulling the country out of its spiral into civil war. He also spoke with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He came away saying that the United States and Iraq are substantially in agreement on a way forward. NPR's Corey Flintoff joins us from Baghdad. Corey, thanks very much for being with us.

COREY FLINTOFF: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And any signs you can recognize about what Secretary Gates might tell President Bush today?

FLINTOFF: Well, Gates really didn't tip his hand about what his thinking might be, but given that he seems to have talked with the same players as former secretary Rumsfeld and other administration officials, it's really hard to imagine the president is going to hear anything very radically new today.

SIMON: Now, his visit, Secretary Gates's visit to Iraq lasted three days. That's comparatively long for a U.S. official. Did he seem to cover more ground than what we've seen in other visits?

FLINTOFF: He certainly spent more time meeting with senior officials. General John Abizaid, the top commander in the Middle East, and General George Casey, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, were with him a great deal of the time. He seems to have spent most of that time at Camp Victory, which is the main U.S. military headquarters, or in the Green Zone, which is the area that houses the Iraqi government and the U.S. Embassy. And we know he did make one trip up to the U.S. base in Balad, north of Baghdad, for a briefing on special operations.

The security situation really does make it difficult for top American officials to get around here, because they're just especially high value targets. So he may have heard some new ideas, but we don't know whether he's heard from any new advisors.

SIMON: You know, in this day and age of secure and instantaneous communication, you don't have to fly 10 hours in a tube - no matter how nice the secretary of defense's plane I assume would be - to talk to your top generals, and for that matter Iraqi leaders. Why an extended high-profile visit like this?

FLINTOFF: Well, I think it's important for Mr. Gates to develop these personal relationships with his commanders. That's something he can't very well do in a video teleconference. And then there's the symbolic value of having the new defense boss be seen on the ground here in the war zone. And you know, you actually do get some sense of the war in the places he visited. I mean you can hear explosions and gunfire practically any day from the Green Zone.

SIMON: What is in effect the effect of a visit like this on the American public and Mr. Gates's own profile, and for that matter, the Iraqi public?

FLINTOFF: Well, if you consider that Mr. Gates, what little he had to say, actually, during his media opportunities, I'd say, you know, there is symbolic value to this. He said he talked with the generals about the potential value of making a temporary increase, you know, a surge in the number of U.S. troops here, and that suggests at least that the administration is open to the idea. Although the generals he talked with, Abizaid and Casey, have been saying up until now that they have enough troops.

Gates also stressed that the Iraqi leaders told him that they want American support, but they want to take the lead in security operations, especially in regaining control of Baghdad. So that's very much in keeping with what the administration's been saying about moving U.S. troops into an advisory role.

SIMON: But I guess to top this off, Mr. Gates apparently indicated today that he thought Iraqi and American leaders were substantially in agreement, even though we don't necessarily know what that agreement is.

FLINTOFF: Yes. And he suggested - this came after a visit, a talk with Maliki, and he seemed confident. He said that there were details that remained to be worked out and that lower level officials were going to be working them out. But he seemed to be confident that they were on the same page.

SIMON: NPR's Corey Flintoff in Baghdad, thank you.

FLINTOFF: Thank you, Scott.

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Bush, Gates Confer on Iraq Strategy

WASHINGTON (AP) — Moving closer to an overhaul of troubled war strategy, President Bush on Saturday heard firsthand from his new Pentagon chief, just back from a visit to Iraq.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, finishing up his first week on the job, spent three days in Iraq before heading straight to Camp David in Maryland to report to the president on his conversations with Iraqi leaders and U.S. commanders and soldiers. While in Iraq, Gates expressed confidence that Iraqis can take the lead in reducing the violence and warned Iran and Syria not to meddle in their neighbor's affairs.

Bush, who is spending Christmas at the presidential retreat, was joined by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser Stephen Hadley and Hadley's deputy, J.D. Crouch, who is coordinating the administration's Iraq review.

A White House spokesman, Blain Rethmeier, said "the president is pleased with the progress being made" on crafting a new policy. The White House would provide no details of the hourlong discussion.

Bush has said he cannot settle on a revised war plan without input from Gates, who took over from Donald H. Rumsfeld at the Defense Department on Monday. The president is expect to announce his revamped Iraq strategy in a speech to the nation between the New Year's Day and Jan. 23, when he gives his State of the Union address.

The president is considering adding thousands of U.S. troops to the 140,000 already in Iraq as a way to control escalating violence, particularly in Baghdad.

The Los Angeles Times reported Saturday that Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and other military leaders in Iraq once skeptical of a "surge" in troops have decided to endorse the idea. Rethmeier would neither confirm nor deny the story.

Some important voices at the Pentagon, however, are not convinced that a significant troop increase would help and, in fact, worry it could do more harm than good.

Democrats about to take control of Congress and other war critics fear that American troops will remain mired unless the Iraqis are threatened with an imminent withdrawal of U.S. soldiers and forced to meet specific benchmarks.

Bush has changed his mind and now believes the Army and Marine Corps should be increased in overall size. This process would take years but still could address some doubts in the military about a short-term boost in Iraq.

While saying he has not decided whether to deploy more U.S. soldiers, the president has given another nod to military leaders by making clear he agrees that any such mission is only feasible if there is a defined mission that is clear and achievable.

Before leaving Baghdad, Gates would not say whether he supports a short-term troop increase. He did speak optimistically about Iraq's political leaders' commitment to taking over their own security and ability to deal with the militias that have brought the country to the brink of civil war.

The military component of Bush's upcoming plan has drawn the most attention. But it is only one part of what is expected to be a multi-pronged strategy.

It also will include a way to improve the economic picture in Iraq and a new approach to both diplomacy in the region and to the delicate — and deadly — political situation inside Iraq.

An anti-American, mostly Sunni insurgency has been replaced this year as the chief source of violence by bloodshed between Sunni and Shiite factions.

With public support for the war falling as violence and U.S. deaths rise, Bush has been eager to show he is ready to make changes, even while he rejects calls from many Democrats for significant troop withdrawals to begin soon. The president has talked often in recent weeks about the long commitment America must make to Iraq.

"Things are moving in a positive direction. But it's going to be a long haul," Gates said during his visit.

Looking ahead, the president has called a meeting of his National Security Council on Thursday at his Crawford, Texas, ranch.

"If you're serving on the front lines halfway across the world, it is natural to wonder what all this means for you," the president said Saturday in his weekly radio address, taped before he left Washington on Friday for the holiday.

"I want our troops to know that while the coming year will bring change, one thing will not change, and that is our nation's support for you and the vital work you do to achieve a victory in Iraq."

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