By Carmen L. Gleason
American Forces Press Service
June 15, 2007 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, here on a previously unannounced visit, said he is hopeful that recent bombings by al Qaeda in Iraq won't further disrupt or delay progress in the country. Gates arrived here this evening to meet with senior leaders on the ground to discuss operations, the reconciliation progress and how the nation plans to handle recent sectarian attacks, including the highly publicized bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra.
The trip marks the fourth time the secretary has visited the nation during his six-month tenure. He said his message will be the same as during his first trip in December: American troops are buying Iraqis time to pursue reconciliation within the country.
"Frankly, we're disappointed with progress so far," he said. "I hope they can continue working on both legislation and efforts from the ground to build up reconciliation in terms of groups who are deciding to work with the government and so on."
Gates said he hopes to have a "sense of direction" in trends and where things are headed by September, when U.S. leaders in Iraq are to deliver an assessment of conditions on the ground.
Gates said progress is occurring on many fronts. "Clearly one of the purposes of my visit is to encourage them to make that progress," he said. "There is enormous interest in them making progress and demonstrating to the Iraqi people that they are prepared to lay the foundations for a future Iraqi state in which all of the different elements can live in peace with one another. I think that possibility is still open."
Iraq remains a "mixed picture," Gates said. Some areas continue to see violence, Gates noted, but added that during his last trip here he saw amusement parks and markets that had reopened. He said he has since heard that other businesses, such as coffee shops, are thriving.
The secretary said generals on the ground, including Multinational Force Iraq Commander Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, are being realistic in their assessments of what is going on in Iraq and are giving honest appraisals to the American public and Congress.
"General Petraeus has been the one to say that it's going to get tougher before it gets better," Gates said. "He has not pulled his punches at all in terms of the difficulty of the struggle in front of us, in terms of the obstacles to reconciliation and greater security both in the Baghdad area and Iraq as a whole."
Gates said he has every confidence in Petraeus.
"What we're seeing in Iraq is a healthy thing. It's called politics. And I think that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is facing some enormous obstacles," the secretary said, "but he's worked closely with us and reaching out to others in the presidential council and working with them; it's an evolving process."
Gates reminded reporters that Iraqi leaders are new to positions of responsibility. "Trying to bring this all together is a challenge," he said. "I think Prime Minister Maliki is trying to address that challenge as well as he can, and he deserves our support."
Gates arrived in Baghdad after two days of talks with NATO ministers in Brussels, Belgium.