Gates Cautiously Upbeat on Iraq

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is escorted by Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling on arrival in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates is escorted by Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling on arrival in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. (Pool Photo By Haraz N. Ghanbari Via Getty Images)
By Ann Scott Tyson and Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 6, 2007

BAGHDAD, Dec. 5 -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Wednesday that a stable and democratic Iraq is "within reach." But he cautioned that threats remain, pointing to insurgent efforts to create a stronghold in northern Iraq as U.S. commanders seek more than 1,400 additional Iraqi and U.S. troops there.

Gates, who during Senate confirmation hearings a year ago stated that the United States was neither winning nor losing in Iraq, was unusually upbeat in his remarks. He said several recent trends have given him hope, including the lowest levels of violence since early 2006, a substantial increase in the number of displaced Iraqis returning to their homeland, rising international investments and the willingness of more than 70,000 Iraqis to volunteer to protect their neighborhoods.

"More than ever, I believe that the goal of a secure, stable and democratic Iraq is within reach," Gates said at a news conference in the fortified Green Zone. "We need to be patient, but we also need to be absolutely resolved in our desire to see the nascent signs of hope across Iraq expand and flourish."

In a reminder that security remains tenuous, a series of car and roadside bombs exploded across Iraq on Wednesday, killing at least 28 people and wounding 69.

The deadliest attack occurred at 5 p.m. in Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood, considered one of the safer enclaves in the capital, when a car bomb exploded near the Shiite Abdul Rasool Ali mosque. The blast, across the Tigris River from the Green Zone, killed 18 people and injured 33, police said.

A car bombing in the northern city of Mosul killed one civilian and injured seven at 9:15 a.m., shortly before Gates landed there on the first leg of his Iraq visit. The car was traveling on a road leading to Mosul's airport and a U.S. military base, said Brig. Gen. Saaed al-Juboory, a police spokesman in Nineveh province.

The U.S. military also reported the deaths of two U.S. soldiers in Salahuddin province, north of Baghdad.

The Mosul bombing underscored what Gates said was a rise in attacks in the northern section of the country, which stretches from Baghdad north to the Syrian and Turkish borders, and east to Iran.

"As military operations have pushed al-Qaeda out of the south and west, there has been a resulting increase in terrorist activities in Mosul and surrounding areas as al-Qaeda tries to establish a new foothold," Gates said, referring to the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Army Col. Tony Thomas, deputy commander for northern Iraq, told reporters traveling with Gates that his command had asked for more U.S. troops and the return of two Iraqi battalions back from Baghdad, a total of about 1,400 troops. The additional forces are needed to help stabilize the north, including the cities of Mosul, Samarra and Baiji as well as Diyala province, which he said "continues to be a center for the insurgency."

"While we surged in Baghdad, we held in [the] north. Now we think it may be time" to shift forces, Thomas said, adding that Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, in charge of day-to-day military operations in Iraq, would decide on the U.S. reinforcements.

In Baqubah, about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad in Diyala province, a suicide car bomber detonated his explosives in a bus station, killing five and wounding 13, provincial police said. The station was crowded with passengers heading to mostly Shiite areas in the province, said police Lt. Col. Suhaiel Abid.

In the northern oil-rich city of Kirkuk, a car bomb targeting a police convoy exploded near a restaurant, killing two civilians and injuring eight.

Col. Jon S. Lehr and several Army and Marine colonels who met with Gates in Baghdad told him that although they believe the United States is now "winning" in Iraq, tactical security gains may not endure without economic rebuilding and better governance.

Gates arrived in Baghdad on Wednesday for his sixth visit to the country and said he held "productive" talks with Iraqi officials including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani and Defense Minister Abdul Qader Muhammed Jassim.

Still, Gates added that "much remains to be done" in Iraq. For example, he said the Shiite-led government needs to integrate local volunteers -- 76 percent of whom are Sunni -- into the Iraqi army or police or given other work. The unexpected upsurge in local volunteers has coincided with decreased violence and the discovery of more weapons caches, but could also be a source of instability if the volunteers are not given permanent work, experts say.

"Iraqis who have chosen the fight against al-Qaeda need to be integrated into Iraq's security forces or provided other job opportunities," Gates said.

Overall, Gates voiced concern that progress on reconciliation at the local level is moving faster than at the national level, said a senior defense official who briefed reporters on the way to Iraq. National leaders "may be outpaced" by developments at the grass-roots level, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The United States and Iraq plan to seek the renewal of a U.N. Security Council resolution that provides for U.S. troops to operate in Iraq, and then turn to the complicated task of negotiating a long-term security arrangement.

Gates said he and Iraqi leaders discussed not only how to "sustain the progress of recent months but to build upon it," and he congratulated Maliki on his recent signing of a bilateral agreement outlining the main steps toward creating a long-term strategic relationship with the United States.

Gates will also meet with Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and more junior Army officers, whom he intends to ask about the strains of serving 15-month tours in Iraq.

Special correspondents Naseer Nouri and Dalya Hassan in Baghdad, Dlovan Brwari in Mosul and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company