Secretary Gates Takes a Look at Iraq
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.