By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
June 21, 2007 – The spike in violence and the increase in the number of U.S. servicemembers killed in Iraq is tied to the new strategy that involves rooting insurgents out from their hiding places, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today. "The reason for the spike in violence is that ... our troops and the Iraqi troops are going into areas where they haven't been for some time, and they anticipated that there would be a high level of combat as they did that," Gates said during Pentagon news conference with Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The two men, speaking at a Pentagon news conference, said with the final U.S. brigade now in place in Baghdad, that U.S. and Iraqi security personnel now have the numbers needed to hold a neighborhood that has been cleared.
The offensive in Baghdad has been underway only a few days, Gates said. He said Army Gen. David Petraeus told him there would be tough fighting at the beginning of operations.
"We certainly hope and pray that that level of casualties will not be sustained, it will not continue, but they are in the middle of a battle, and we just will have to deal with that," the secretary said.
Pace said that the operations in Baghdad are providing the time the Iraqi government will need to pass laws that benefit all Iraqis and provide economic incentives to all.
"This is the right thing to do," Pace said. "Later on this summer we'll get some input or some feedback from both General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker and be able to make recommendations to the president."
Gates addressed a question dealing with the 15-month deployment for soldiers. He said that if the current manning level is needed for an extended period of time, then the Army may have to break the 15-month deployment for active duty personnel.
"That's a worst-case scenario, and I don't anticipate having to move to that," Gates said. "Our policy is 15 months. We extended beyond 12 months reluctantly and only to ensure that every soldier ... got at least a year at home.
The secretary hopes the Army can move back to 12 months deployed, 12 months at home, and "then to our eventual goal, which is 12 months deployed and two years at home."
Both Gates and Pace deferred to the experience of those on the ground in Iraq as far as negotiating with Sunni groups to become part of the political process in the country. "Trying to get more of the people who have been shooting to stop shooting and work with us I think is really the pathway forward in terms of accomplishing our objective and getting them to work with the Iraqi government," Gates said.
Bringing sheikhs, tribal leaders and former insurgents in to the process has worked well in Anbar province, Pace said, adding that in addition to Al Anbar, there are about 130 sheikhs in the Tikrit area who have banded together to fight against al Qaeda.
"Is there risk involved with arming groups with whom you've been fighting before? Yes. But I think the greater risk is in not seizing the opportunities as they become available, and as individuals and groups determine that they are willing to team with the Iraqi central government, that they no longer want to be cowered by the al Qaeda, for example, that we should seize those opportunities and work with them and try to get the Iraqi family to pull together," Pace said.
The general said that the number of contacts with the enemy has remained relatively constant - between five and seven contacts per day per brigade. He said the enemy is reaching out to launch attacks on American troops, and improvised explosive device attacks that killed 12 U.S. troops are the type of attacks the enemy wants to inflict.
"When you look at the trend of June compared to May, it's not as high in June as it was in May," Pace said. "However, every death is significant to us, and our enemy knows that it's significant to us."
Pace predicted the enemy will continue to launch more attacks.
"We can expect that our enemy is going to want to impact the psyche here in the United States with regard to the number of significant incidents that they're able to pull off and the total numbers of casualties that they're able to produce," he said. "So it is an expectation that this surge is going to result in more contact and therefore more casualties."