By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 30, 2009
INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey, July 29 -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Wednesday that the relatively low levels of violence in Iraq and improved cooperation of late between U.S. and Iraqi forces have raised the possibility that commanders might be able to "modestly accelerate" the reduction of U.S. forces this year.
At the same time, defense officials said, a flare-up between Kurds and Arabs in northern Iraq is the most likely scenario that could derail drawdown plans. Before leaving northern Iraq on Wednesday, Gates pressed Kurdish leaders to resolve their disputes with the Iraqi government in the next few months, while the United States still has tens of thousands of soldiers in the country and some influence over Baghdad.
U.S. forces formally pulled out of Iraqi cities June 30 and, although there has been some tension between U.S. and Iraqi forces in Baghdad, senior military officials said the transition to full Iraqi control of the cities has gone better than they had expected.
"There clearly will be the occasional hiccup by someone who doesn't get the word, but on the whole we are quite pleased," Gates said at the end of his two-day visit.
The latest evidence of how the Iraqi government is asserting its independence came Tuesday in Diyala province, when security forces raided the camp of an Iranian opposition group that in the past had been protected by the U.S. military in exchange for funneling information about Iran's nuclear ambitions.
At least eight Iranians were killed in the raid and in further violent clashes Wednesday, camp leaders and local officials said.
Gates said that if trends throughout Iraq remain generally positive, the United States could withdraw three combat brigades, each consisting of about 5,000 soldiers, from Iraq this year. The existing plans call for two brigades to be withdrawn.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, would have to recommend speeding the pace of the withdrawal before any final decision could be made this fall, Gates said.
"I think there is at least some chance of a modest acceleration because of the way General Odierno sees things going, but that remains to be seen," he said.
Accelerating the withdrawal from Iraq, where about 130,000 U.S. troops are stationed, would take some of the pressure off the Army, which has been badly strained in recent years by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S.-Iraqi security agreement calls for U.S. troop levels in Iraq to fall to about 50,000 by August 2010. All U.S. troops are to leave by the end of 2011.
Long-running territorial feuds between Arabs and Kurds in northern Iraq, particularly over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, have erupted into tense standoffs between Kurdish militia fighters and Iraqi army soldiers. U.S. troops and liaison officers, who are embedded in the Kurdish and Iraqi units, have played a critical role in preventing violence.
"We have all sacrificed too much in blood and treasure to see our gains lost over political differences," Gates told Kurdish President Massoud Barzani during Wednesday's session.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Gates cautioned Barzani that "very difficult issues remain and that the clock is ticking on our presence."