American Forces Press Service
April 17, 2007 – The resignation of six Iraqi Cabinet ministers loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr can become a positive development if the country's prime minister appoints new ministers that are more representative of the Iraqi population, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today. Gates' comments came in a news conference after morning meetings with Jordan's King Abdallah and Gen. Khaled Jamil al-Sarayrah, the country's chief of defense.
"My understanding is that while the ministers are withdrawing as Cabinet ministers, they will remain as members of the Council of Representatives, so I think that they are not walking away from the process, as it were," Gates said.
Sadr is an influential figure in Iraq with many loyal followers. According to various media reports quoting Sadr followers, the cleric pulled ministers loyal to him from the Iraqi government in protest because the government has so far refused to set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Gates said it's too soon to tell what effect the cleric's distancing himself from Iraq's legitimate government will have.
"I think the impact that ... these resignations have will depend in some measure on who is selected to replace these ministers and their capabilities and whether those vacancies are used in a way that perhaps can advance the reconciliation process," he said.
"There is the opportunity to turn what might seem like a negative, potentially into a positive development," he added.
While Gates said he believes strengthening representation in the Iraqi Cabinet would be a positive step, he said the Iraqis will have to make those decisions for themselves. "That's a judgment that the Iraq leadership is going to have to make," he stressed. "It's really their business."
"I'm not sure really that we fully appreciate the meaning of the action that's been taken and how significant it is," Gates said. "I think we're going to have (to) wait and see a little bit about that."
Gates, a former director of central intelligence, stressed that he has no insight into Sadr's motivations.
"In the intelligence business, we divided all the information that we wanted to know into two categories: secrets and mysteries," the secretary said. "I think that his motives right now, at least for me, are a mystery, not a secret.
Gates went on to say that he believes open debate in the U.S. Congress about the future of U.S. involvement in Iraq is instructive, in that it shows the Iraqis that American patience has limits and that it's time for the Iraqis to make concrete progress on their own. "As General (David) Petraeus (commander of Multinational Force Iraq) has said, there's a Baghdad clock and there's the Washington clock," Gates quipped.
Still, he added that he opposes specific deadlines for withdrawal from Iraq.
"I've been pretty clear that I think the enactment of specific deadlines would be a bad mistake," he said. "But I think that the debate itself, and I think that the strong feelings expressed in the Congress about the timetable, it probably has had a positive impact -- at least I hope it has, in terms of communication to the Iraqis that this is not an open-ended commitment."
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