Defense Secretary Sees Encouraging Signs in Baghdad

By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 6, 2007

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday that he believes the military's operation to secure Baghdad is showing "positive" early signs but that he is reluctant to use "happy talk" to describe the situation in Iraq because it remains violent.

Gates told reporters at the Pentagon that it is still too early to tell whether the "surge" into Baghdad is working and said top commanders probably will not know until midsummer whether their efforts at clearing out Iraq's largest city are making significant progress.

Displaying a sense of caution, as he often has in his first months at the Pentagon's helm, Gates said predictions that the U.S. security plan would elicit a rise in large-scale bombings and other attacks to derail the effort have so far come true.

"I think that there is a great reluctance to engage in happy talk about this," Gates said. "It's a tough environment. . . . And I think we'll just have to wait several more months before we're in a position to make any real evaluation."

The defense secretary's comments come on the heels of upbeat messages from senior Republican members of Congress who have sought to show the war as moving in the right direction. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), ranking minority member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said this week that there is "reason for cautious optimism" after he visited a Baghdad marketplace under heavy security.

McCain, who is campaigning for president and has long advocated sending more troops into Iraq, said that he never before has been able to walk the streets of Baghdad or drive from Baghdad International Airport along the notorious airport road -- a formerly deadly stretch that was made more secure over the past two years, before the troop buildup. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who joined McCain on the trip, echoed McCain's "cautious optimism."

Gates said he is unsure how long the troop increase in Baghdad is going to last but said it probably will be months and not years, depending on the situation on the ground and the level of violence. He warned that congressional efforts to set withdrawal deadlines could be disastrous for Iraq.

"I believe that if we were precipitously to withdraw from Baghdad at this point that there would be a dramatic increase in sectarian violence," Gates said, pointing to killings by death squads and targeted efforts to affect the surge.

Gates appeared at the news conference with Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and both said they also are preparing for increased fighting in Afghanistan. Taliban and other enemy forces have traditionally made a push each spring since the beginning of the war in 2002. U.S. commanders are hoping to push back with their own offensive this year.

Pace said the NATO commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Dan K. McNeill, has begun his offensive operations: "I do not want to get into the specifics of the operations, but it will unfold very clearly here in the next couple days what he has begun."

Pace also said that the deployments to two wars have put a strain on the armed services and have affected readiness for other potential conflicts, but that the United States has "enormous residual capacity" of more than 2.1 million troops not currently deployed. He said any additional wars would likely involve more "brute force" and could result in more casualties because precision equipment is committed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

"It would take longer then for the reserve forces to be remobilized and to get to the fight, but there is zero doubt about the outcome," Pace said. "It would simply take us longer than we would like, or than it would if we were not doing anything else, to defeat any potential enemy."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company