Gates Working to Accelerate Deployment

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 27, 2007

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday that he was working to accelerate the deployment of 21,500 additional U.S. troops to Iraq, suggesting that the influx of American troops is no longer contingent upon the Iraqi government fulfilling its commitments for Baghdad security operations.

Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, confirmed yesterday by the Senate as the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, testified this week that he needs all of the troops -- and possibly more -- for the mission to quell sectarian violence in Baghdad. "As long as he feels he needs them, they're all going to flow," Gates told reporters at his first Pentagon news conference.

"We are going to see if the timetable for the dispatch of the brigades can be accelerated," Gates said, although he added that logistical hurdles may prevent speeding up the movement for all or some of the troops.

The U.S. troop increases now underway in both Iraq and Afghanistan reflect a deliberate effort to "create an environment in which the commanders feel open to requesting what they think they need," Gates said, suggesting that in the past U.S. commanders have not felt comfortable asking for reinforcements. Still, he said, "there is no blank check," and requests for more troops will be vetted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff before being presented to him and President Bush for a decision.

In congressional testimony and statements earlier this month, Gates had suggested that the flow of additional U.S. troops to Iraq would be dependent upon the Iraqi government meeting specific pledges -- such as sending three more Iraqi army brigades to Baghdad and lifting restrictions on U.S. military operations targeting certain Baghdad districts or individuals.

"The timetable for the introduction of additional U.S. forces will provide ample opportunity early on and before many of the additional U.S. troops actually arrive in Iraq to evaluate the progress of this endeavor and whether the Iraqis are fulfilling their commitments to us," he said at a White House news conference earlier this month.

Yesterday's statements made it clear that any decision on withholding troops would be left to Petraeus, who has said he favors moving the troops to Iraq as quickly as possible.

Gates defended the man Petraeus will replace, outgoing U.S. commander Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who is under fire from some in Congress for failures of strategy in Iraq. Gates nominated Casey to become the Army's next chief of staff, with a confirmation hearing scheduled for Feb. 1. But Casey has since faced harsh criticism from some senators, including John McCain (R-Ariz.), who says he plans to vote against Casey.

"If it's clear that generals have made serious mistakes, specific mistakes . . . they should be held accountable," Gates said. "I'm not convinced that has happened in this case."

He said Casey "has responded to the changing circumstances" by reversing a plan for a substantial troop drawdown in Iraq in 2006 after the bombing of a Shiite shrine in the city of Samarra unleashed widespread sectarian violence.

Moreover, he said the performance of Casey and other officers must be viewed "in the context of the decisions made by the civilian superiors of officers and how the battlefield they faced was shaped by those decisions. . . . I think he deserves this position."

On upcoming U.S. and Iraqi military operations to secure Baghdad, Gates said that while they could lead to increased U.S. troop casualties, another possibility is that many of the Shiite militia and other fighters "will go to ground in the hope that they can just outwait us and filter back once we're gone." To address that concern, he said the goal was for U.S. forces to help drive the violence in Baghdad down to the point where it "would be entirely manageable by the Iraqi army that would be there for a protracted period of time."

Gates declined to comment on the results of recent U.S. airstrikes to target terrorists in Somalia, saying only that U.S. forces would seek to kill or capture members of al-Qaeda and other groups that attack the United States.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company