Gates Talks Over Options With U.S. Commanders in Iraq

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is greeted at the Baghdad airport by Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, who has opposed a surge in U.S. troops, and Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, who is said to favor an increase. A surge appears to be supported by many at the White House.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is greeted at the Baghdad airport by Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, who has opposed a surge in U.S. troops, and Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, who is said to favor an increase. A surge appears to be supported by many at the White House. (By Cherie A. Thurlby -- Defense Department Via Associated Press)

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By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 21, 2006

BAGHDAD, Dec. 20 -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates spent his third day as Pentagon chief in an intense series of discussions with top U.S. military commanders about next steps in Iraq, but said he wouldn't move toward any conclusions until he had talked with senior Iraqi officials.

"We discussed the obvious things," Gates said after meeting with Gen. John P. Abizaid, Gen. George W. Casey Jr. and other top Army generals here. "We discussed the possibility of a surge and the potential for what it might accomplish." In recent days the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the White House have debated whether to conduct such a "surge," or short-term escalation of U.S. troops in Iraq, in an effort to bring more security to the country's turbulent capital, Baghdad.

Appearing relaxed but looking funereal in a black suit, white shirt and dark tie, Gates said he had received "candid, honest, firsthand assessments" from senior officers he met with here Wednesday.

"This trip is part of the overall assessment that the president asked me to do," he said. Underscoring that focus, Gates was accompanied on his aircraft by Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as officials from the State Department, the staff of Vice President Cheney and the National Security Council. Defense secretaries rarely travel with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs or with such a broad delegation of officials from other agencies.

Abizaid and Casey, who have differed on a troop increase, appeared to engage in a bit of military rope-a-dope in which each seemed to embrace the other's stance. Abizaid, long known inside the military for his opposition to boosting the U.S. troop presence here, said flatly: "Absolutely every option is on the table." Casey, his immediate subordinate and old friend, who is said to favor an increase, said, "I'm not necessarily opposed to the idea" -- if, he added, sending additional troops would help achieve strategic objectives.

There are about 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Advocates of a short, sharp increase say an additional 20,000 to 30,000 might help quell the violence that is ripping apart Baghdad, while some top U.S. military officers caution that a smaller surge last summer turned out to be ineffective.

Gates rejected the notion that he is the "swing vote" in the discussion, although he stands between a Joint Chiefs of Staff extremely skeptical of a troop surge and many officials at the White House who appear to favor it. "Let me be very clear, I am not the swing vote," he said. "There is only one vote that matters, and that is the president of the United States."

A former CIA chief, Gates was last in Iraq in early September as a member of the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan commission on Iraq policy led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former representative Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.)

"I didn't dream at that time that I would have some responsibility for what goes forward," he said Wednesday.

Gates left that group after being nominated in early November to succeed Donald H. Rumsfeld as defense secretary. About a month after he left, the group issued a scathing report that depicted the situation in Iraq in far bleaker terms than the Bush administration had been using.

The group concluded that the security situation was grave and deteriorating, that U.S. officials sometimes didn't understand the facts of the matter, and that U.S. policy was failing. That bleak diagnosis appears to have altered the debate over Iraq, with few people now claiming that "steady progress" is being made, as Bush administration officials did for several years.

The Iraq Study Group also issued 79 recommendations calling for the United States to step up diplomacy in the Middle East and to transform the U.S. military effort in Iraq from one focused on combat to one focused on training and advising Iraqi forces. This change, it argued, should enable the U.S. military to withdraw most of its combat brigades from Iraq by early 2008.

Since the report was issued, its recommendations have received only a lukewarm response, both from the White House and from members of Congress. However, Gates's presence at the Pentagon, and his ability there to implement some of the recommendations almost immediately, may give the report a boost when Congress meets in a few weeks to resume its review of the Iraq war.


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