By Bill Brubaker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 19, 2007 5:58 PM
A day after a wave of car bombings killed more than 150 civilians and injured almost 200 others in Baghdad, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates asserted today that the U.S. commitment to the Iraq war is not open-ended.
Gates, at a news conference in Tel Aviv before he made a surprise visit to Baghdad, said the debate in Congress over war funding underscores the need for Iraqi lawmakers to pass legislation that addresses political reconciliation and sharing of oil revenues.
"Frankly, I would like to see faster progress," Gates said. " . . . The president has said that our patience is not unlimited. I don't think we've been very subtle in communicating these messages to the Iraqis."
A few hours after Gates arrived in Baghdad, a top Pentagon official said it's still too early to tell whether the nine-week-old American troop surge in the Iraqi capital is working.
Recalling the recent attacks on the heavily fortified Green Zone, Army Maj. Gen. Michael Barbero predicted more violent, high-profile incidents.
"The Green Zone and predominately Shi'a areas remain extremely high priority targets both physically and symbolically for an adaptive, ruthless and thinking enemy looking to make headlines and undermine stability," said Barbero, the deputy director of operations for the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs of Staff. "We can expect this enemy to use every means at his disposal, no matter how brutal, to attempt further high profile attacks."
But Barbero said there are glimmers of progress since President Bush ordered an additional 30,000 troops to Iraq in February as part of a U.S.-led crackdown meant to pacify the Iraqi capital.
In Baghdad, attacks on civilians are down about 50 percent, compared with the six-week period before the surge began, Barbero said. Across Iraq, civilian casualties are down 24 percent, he said. Barbero did not offer details on how those statistics were compiled.
"I will tell you that despite these high profile attacks, sectarian murder trends are declining in Baghdad as additional U.S. and Iraqi security forces continue to establish themselves in the neighborhoods," Barbero said.
Yesterday, car bombs killed at least 158 people in several mainly Shiite districts in Baghdad. At least 118 of those people were killed near the busy Sadriya market. Gates called the bombings "horrifying" and accused al-Qaeda of being behind the attacks.
At a news conference today in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, who took over as the top U.S. commander in Iraq in February, said the security situation in Baghdad lost "a bit of traction" after yesterday's bombings.
"Yesterday was a bad day, there's no two ways about it," Petraeus said, according to the American Forces Press Service. "And a day like that can have a real psychological impact."
The attacks -- the deadliest since the troop surge began -- came as a showdown between Bush and congressional Democrats over a war-funding bill is coming to a boil.
Both the House and Senate have approved supplemental war funding bills that offer timetables for troops to be withdrawn from Iraq over the next year. Bush has vowed to veto any bill with a timetable, saying decisions on troop levels should be made by military commanders -- not lawmakers. The showdown has been brewing since Democrats won control of the House and Senate in the November elections.
Today, Gates suggested that the debate in Washington over war funding is sending an unmistakable message to lawmakers in Baghdad.
"One of the ancillary benefits of the debate on the Hill is that the Iraqis have to know, as I've said, that this isn't an open-ended commitment," he said.
Bush, meanwhile, continued today to make a case for the troop surge.
In a town-hall meeting at a high school in Tipp City, Ohio, he said withdrawing troops from Iraq would allow al-Qaeda to establish a "safe heaven from which to attack us again."
"That's what al-Qaeda says" it will do, Bush said. "Al Qaeda is the same group of folks that attacked us on September 11th."
Later, Bush said a troop withdrawal would embolden the enemy and threaten the United States, Israel "and every other moderate person in the Middle East."
"Imagine a scenario where the oil wealth of certain countries . . . came under the control of a radical extremist group," Bush said. "And then all the sudden you'd be dealing not only with safe haven for potential violent attack, you'd be dealing with the economic consequences of people who didn't share the values of the West."
This morning, the U.S. military announced that three American soldiers were killed and another was wounded yesterday in two attacks in Baghdad.
Two soldiers died and one was wounded when their vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device north of Baghdad, a military statement said. Another soldier died when a combat security patrol was attacked with small arms fire in a southwestern section of the Iraqi capital.
The names of the deceased soldiers will be released after relatives are notified, the military statements said.
More than 3,300 U.S. service members have been killed since the U.S.-led Iraq war began in March 2003.