By Carmen L. Gleason
American Forces Press Service
June 16, 2007 – The U.S. troop surge into Iraq is just starting to have its full-intended impact, and it will take time to judge its effectiveness, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said after meeting with U.S. and Iraqi leaders here today. During his brief visit to Iraq, which started last night, Gates met with Multinational Force Iraq Commander Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Iraqi political leaders and U.S. troops on the ground.
In a news conference after his meeting with Petraeus and Crocker, the secretary praised the two leaders for their efforts in working for reconciliation in Iraq.
"These two are among America's finest public servants," he said. "The American people can count on them to provide honest, candid and realistic appraisals of what's going on in Iraq, good and bad."
Crocker and Petraeus are due to make an assessment in September as to whether the U.S. troop surge has been effective in quelling violence and prompting political progress.
Gates said that with the recent arrival of the fifth additional brigade into Iraq, the full impact of the U.S. troop surge, which began building a few months ago, is just now beginning. It remains to be seen how much progress will be made over the next two or three months on the 18 benchmarks President Bush and Congress included in the Iraq war funding bill, he said.
However, while the benchmarks are important, it's also important to be aware of what's happening at the provincial and local level, such as the "ground up" effort that has been so successful in Anbar province, Gates said.
"The benchmarks primarily focus on a national level, and we have to pay attention to those because they are in the legislation, but there is this other aspect to it," Gates said.
Crocker told reporters that he is pressing hard to meet benchmarks, and the Iraqi government is pushing itself, but progress has been frustratingly slow.
"I think it's important to remember that while benchmarks are important, they are a means to an end," he said, "and the end is a government that is effective in delivering services to its citizens and an effective instrument at furthering the process of reconciliation."
Crocker said that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has stepped up as a leader following this week's Samarra mosque bombing by enforcing curfews, convening the presidency council to get Sunni, Shiia and Kurdish leaders' impressions on how to deal with the crisis, and traveling to Samarra to demonstrate his direct involvement in the potential crises following.
"This will be a difficult and painful process," Crocker said. "But there are an awful lot of Iraqis in government and in neighborhoods who think this can be done."-
During his trip, Gates also visited the Nadain Joint Security Station in the southeastern sector of Baghdad, where he met with Iraqi police and military members, in addition to U.S. troops from the 217th Field Artillery Battalion based in Fort Carson, Colo.
Gates commended the troops for their service in manning what could be described as a "911 emergency center" for the neighborhood of Zafaniyah. By developing relationships with residents, the station's presence has been credited with helping reduce the number of violent attacks within its area of responsibility.
"By maintaining a continued presence in Baghdad neighborhoods, residents are more secure and more wiling to help break the cycle of violence," Gates said. "(Our troops) are doing a superb job under difficult conditions. They deserve our deepest gratitude for their sacrifice and those of their families."
Gates arrived in Baghdad after two days of talks with NATO ministers in Brussels, Belgium.