Thursday, August 2, 2007

Robert Gates: "Bush Administration May Have Misjudged The Difficulty In Iraq..."

. . . . of achieving reconciliation among Iraq's sectarian factions."

The NYTimes reports:

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today that he was discouraged by the departure of the major Sunni Arab bloc from Iraq’s coalition government, and noted that the Bush administration may have misjudged the difficulty of achieving reconciliation among Iraq’s sectarian factions.

In one of his bluntest assessments of the progress of the administration’s Iraq strategy, Mr. Gates said: “I think the developments on political side are somewhat discouraging at the national level. And clearly the withdrawal of the Sunnis from the government is discouraging. My hope is that it can all be patched back together.”

He made the remarks to reporters traveling on his plane as he returned to Washington after a three-day trip to the Middle East, which included stops in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates but not to Iraq.

Mr. Gates said little to indicate whether he would recommend a shift in the administration’s strategy next month, when officials are planning to review the results achieved by sending nearly 30,000 additional American troops to Iraq in an effort to secure Baghdad.

When the Bush administration decided to send the additional troops, he said, “we probably all underestimated the depth of the mistrust, and how difficult it would be for these guys to come together on legislation, which, let’s face it, is not some kind of secondary issue.”

He was referring to the failure of Iraq’s parliament to pass legislation governing the distribution of oil revenue, to set a timetable for provincial elections or to ease work restrictions on former Baath party members — measures that the Bush administration considers crucial for reconciliation between Sunni and Shiite Arabs in Iraq.

While he was critical of the government led by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite Arab, Mr. Gates’s view was not wholly gloomy. The security situation in the country, he said, was “more encouraging than I would have expected three or four months ago.”

He said there had been progress in reducing violence in Anbar Province, and in persuading Sunni tribal sheikhs in some areas of the country to cooperate in security operations against Sunni Arab insurgents, a development he called “in some respects unexpected.”

He said the administration would have to balance the relative lack of progress on the political front with the somewhat encouraging trends in the security realm when it prepares its review in September, which will include reports from Gen. David Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, and from Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

Several American military commanders in Iraq have said that the additional troops will be needed in Iraq into next year. Some critics of the Iraq policy, including several Democrats running for president, have called instead for beginning to withdraw troops and shifting to a strategy that focuses more on counterterrorism than on protecting Iraqis.

One of the arguments administration officials made earlier this year for the increase in troop strength and the new emphasis on securing Baghdad was that it would give Mr. Maliki’s government “breathing room” to achieve the political reconciliation and progress on legislation.

But Mr. Gates offered a slightly different formulation today, arguing that political progress would come when Iraqi police and army units proved themselves able to take over primary responsibility for maintaining security in areas now largely patrolled by American troops.

“I think the key is, not only establishing the security, but being able to hold on to those areas, and for Iraqi Army and police to be able to provide the continuity of security over time,” Mr. Gates said. “It’s under that umbrella I think progress will be made at the national level.”

He did not say how long that would take.

As he has traveled around the Middle East this week, Mr. Gates has stressed that whenever the United States begins drawing down its troops in Iraq, it must be careful not to leave the country in chaos, which he warned could spread throughout the region.

Mr. Gates stopped briefly in Abu Dhabi today for talks with Mohammed bin Zayeed al Nahyan, the emirate’s crown prince. On Wednesday, he toured the port in Kuwait City by helicopter; that port would be vital for shipping American military equipment home whenever troops begin to withdraw.

Earlier on his four-day journey, he visited Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Gates asked the United States’s Arab allies to help stabilize Iraq and to toughen their enforcement of United Nations sanctions against Iran. He discussed proposed arms sales with each of the countries.

According to a senior Defense Department official, Mr. Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who joined him in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, stressed the need for Arab regimes in the region to support the administration’s effort to isolate Iran, diplomatically and economically.

“There’s not really room for bystanders here,” Mr. Gates said.

But he also tried to put to rest a persistent concern that the Bush administration is preparing to attack Iran, the Defense official said: Mr. Gates was asked why the United States had four aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf if no attack was planned, and had to explain that, in fact, there was only one American carrier in the area, the Defense official said.