By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 20, 2007
BAGHDAD, April 19 -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived in Baghdad on Thursday to convey a blunt message to Iraq's leadership three months after the United States began an increase of more than 28,000 troops in the country. "The clock is ticking," he said.
Gates said he will urge Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other leaders in meetings Friday to act more quickly and boldly to achieve reconciliation between the majority Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish political factions -- warning that U.S. troops will not remain in the country indefinitely.
"The Iraqis have to know that this isn't an open-ended commitment," Gates told reporters traveling with him Thursday, emphasizing that he does not intend to be subtle in meetings with Maliki and others.
Gates's visit comes at a critical midway point of the Bush administration's new "surge" strategy in Iraq. Under the plan announced in January, tens of thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops have flowed into Baghdad and Anbar province in an effort to increase security and buy time for Maliki's fledgling government to gain the strength and unity that are preconditions for an enduring peace.
But as Pentagon officials point out, the time is bought at the steep price of increased U.S. military casualties and cannot be squandered.
"Frankly, I would like to see faster progress," Gates said shortly before flying to Baghdad.
Gates said he will push the Maliki government to reach consensus on key legislation that would govern the country's oil resources and allow some former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to return to their jobs. The Iraqi government laid out benchmarks for those and other key legislative goals last fall but has largely failed to meet them. "Getting some of these laws enacted communicates a willingness to work together" and could ultimately reduce attacks, Gates said.
Gates is visiting after devastating suicide bombings that killed more than 160 people in the capital Wednesday, another in a rising number of suicide vehicle attacks that U.S. military officials say Sunni insurgent groups are using to hit Shiite neighborhoods and inflame sectarian fighting.
During the six weeks ending in mid-April, sectarian violence -- as measured by attacks on civilians -- dropped about 20 percent, but strikes by suicide bombers wearing vests or using explosives-packed vehicles rose 30 percent, according to U.S. military reports.
Wednesday "was a bad day," said Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. "Clearly the sensational attacks can't be anything other than setbacks," he added, noting that the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq "is intent on trying to reignite sectarian violence and on trying to derail the Baghdad security plan." He spoke at a news conference after a meeting with Gates; Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Adm. William J. Fallon, the U.S. Central Command chief; and other commanders.
Still, Petraeus said Iraqi leaders of different sects had responded "very resolutely" to the bombings, while security officials had redoubled efforts to uncover car bomb networks.
Another psychological blow came last week when a suicide bomber struck inside the protected Green Zone, killing one legislator at the Iraqi parliament cafeteria, halting the legislative process. "I know it's difficult" to enact the laws, Gates said, noting that the attack had "made people nervous."
Adding to the challenges, the Maliki cabinet underwent its first serious shake-up this week as anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr pulled his six ministers out of the government -- a move that could create an opportunity for broadening the government but could also lead to an escalation of violence, U.S. officials said.
The increase of U.S. troops in Iraq so far has produced what Petraeus on Thursday called "slow progress" and "a bit of traction" in Baghdad and especially Anbar. The number of U.S. troops in Iraq has grown to 146,000, with the temporary increase about 60 percent complete. The total is set to increase to roughly 160,000 troops by June.
Petraeus has said he will assess the progress of military operations in late summer and may ask Gates to maintain the higher troop level beyond the fall.
To make that possible, Gates last week extended from a year to 15 months the tours of all active-duty Army units that are in Iraq and Afghanistan or headed there, a change that will affect more than 100,000 soldiers.
Gates flew to Fallujah in Iraq's Sunni-dominated Anbar province, where he said a decline in violence and an increase in locally recruited security forces were encouraging. "It's a place where the Iraqis have decided to take control of their future," he said.