By Steven Donald Smith
American Forces Press Service
March 18, 2007 – The U.S. troop surge in Iraq is in its early stages, but seems to be paving the way for a political solution to the country's woes, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today on CBS's "Face the Nation." "The way I would characterize it is so far so good," Gates said in his first network one-on-one interview since taking over at the Pentagon in December.
Gates said the situation in Iraq cannot be solved by the military alone, but the troop surge is helping create a political environment where issues can be sorted out among the Iraqis. "We're basically buying them time. That's the purpose of this whole strategy," he said. "They're going to have to step up to the plate. And we can help them by giving them the time to do that, and to make their military forces able to carry the burden by themselves."
In January, President Bush pledged 21,500 additional U.S. troops to Iraq to help stem sectarian violence, and last week the Defense Department announced that 7,000 more support troops are on their way to Iraq.
Gates said the Iraqis are meeting their commitments and working to reconcile their differences. "The troops they have promised are showing up," he said. "They are allowing operations in all neighborhoods. There is very little political interference with military operations."
Gates said Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, has said it will probably be summer before it's known if the surge has been successful. "That's why we have to wait and see what kind of trend line appears over the next weeks and few months," Gates said.
U.S. military commanders anticipate that as the U.S. changes its strategy in Iraq, terrorists and insurgents will also change strategies by operating in areas on the outskirts of Baghdad.
Al Qaeda in Iraq leaders have stated that they wanted to create a firm base in Anbar province and other areas to destabilize Iraq's neighbors and launch attacks against the U.S.
Characterizing the situation in Iraq as a civil war is an oversimplification, Gates said. "The reality is that stoking sectarian violence is a very specific strategy on the part of al Qaeda and the insurgents," he said. "You don't have thousands of Shia and Sunni falling in on each other or attacking each other. You have hit squads going around the city."
The defense secretary also talked about the vote to take place this week in the U.S. House of Representatives on a bill that would place constraints and a timeline for U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq. Gates said everyone involved in the debate is patriotic and looking out for America's best interests, and that most people agree, regardless of political affiliation, that leaving Iraq in chaos would be a mistake.
"We're all wrestling with what's the best way to bring about a result that serves the long-term interest, not only of the Iraqi people but of the United States," he said.
Gates said he was concerned that the specific deadlines and strict conditions in the House bill will make it "difficult, if not impossible" for military commanders to achieve their objectives. "And frankly, as I read it, the House bill is more about withdrawal, regardless of the circumstances on the ground, than it is about trying to produce a positive outcome."
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