Iraqi Prime Minister Tells Gates He'll Let U.S. Decide on Troop 'Surge'

By Thomas E. Ricks and Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 22, 2006

BAGHDAD, Dec. 21 -- Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told visiting Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates that he would let U.S. generals decide whether there is a need for a "surge" in U.S. troops deployed in Iraq, according to Iraqi officials with knowledge of the meeting.

In a news conference, Gates said his conversation with the Iraqi prime minister and defense minister included "no numbers. . . . We were really talking in broader terms."

Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul Qadir Muhammed Jassim later indicated general acceptance of an idea that has emerged as one of the chief options President Bush is considering as he reevaluates Iraq policy. "I did not say no to an increase in the number of U.S. troops," Qadir said in a brief interview after the meeting at Maliki's residence in the Green Zone. "If we need it, we need it."

But after seeing Gates, Maliki met with Shiite Muslim members of his alliance, in a session where divisions unfolded over whether more U.S. troops were needed, said Sami al-Askari, a Shiite member of parliament who is close to Maliki. Askari, who attended the second meeting, said there was a general feeling that "there's no need for further troops."

Gates said that during his meeting with Maliki, he "emphasized . . . the steadfastness of American support" for Iraq. The message he heard back from Maliki, he said, was that the Iraqi government wants to take the lead role in solving the country's security problems -- including in the most violent zones in and around Baghdad.

According to a statement issued by the prime minister's office, Maliki told Gates that Sunni Arab insurgents and loyalists of Saddam Hussein's former Baath Party were behind the violence unfolding in the capital.

Maliki spoke in general terms about the Baghdad security plan he has developed, saying Iraqi forces were working with U.S. troops to enact the plan "according to a new vision," the statement said. Maliki's close advisers say he has proposed a two-pronged strategy in which U.S. troops would target Sunni Arab insurgents in outer Baghdad neighborhoods for four to eight weeks, while Iraqi forces would take over control of inner Baghdad.

Maliki would also launch a political offensive, which would include threats of force, to persuade radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to agree to contain his Mahdi Army militia during the operation.

Gates has billed his trip to Iraq, launched the day after he became defense secretary earlier this week, as key to formulating his recommendations for Bush on how to reshape the U.S. approach in Iraq. But in his public comments, he gave little indication of how his two days of talks here so far with generals, enlisted soldiers and Iraqi officials have affected his views.

He had breakfast Thursday with more than a dozen enlisted soldiers who were less bashful. Along with his scrambled eggs and hash browns, Gates got an earful about the need for more personnel.

"I really think we need more troops here," said Spec. Jason Glenn, who said he operates an unmanned aerial vehicle in an intelligence unit in the 1st Infantry Division. He said he has noticed that when insurgents see a drone aircraft overhead, they simply lie low, "so I think more presence on the ground" is the answer.

"I think we do need more troops over here," agreed Pfc. Cassandra Wallace, a support soldier in the 10th Mountain Division. "More troops would help us integrate the Iraqi army into patrols here."

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