By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
July 9, 2007 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates cancelled a scheduled trip to Central and South America this week to spend time in Washington focusing on Iraq issues, a senior defense official said today. Gates attended the U.S. Special Operations Command change of command ceremony in Tampa, Fla., this morning as scheduled, but will return to Washington later today, Bryan Whitman, deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, told reporters.
The secretary had been slated to spend the rest of the week on a four-country swing through Latin America. However, he scratched those plans over the weekend to participate in policy meetings on Iraq, Whitman said.
Those discussions are taking place as the administration finalizes its interim report to Congress on progress in Iraq. The report, due July 15, is one of two required by Congress as part of the emergency war-spending supplemental spending measure. The second report is due in September.
"As the week began to take shape, it became clear that (Gates') participation in various policy meetings was important, and the Defense Department as well as the administration is very focused on the current operations in Iraq," Whitman said.
He emphasized that the pending report represents just "a snapshot at the front end of the surge capability," rather than an assessment of the surge or how successfully specific benchmarks are being met.
"We all have to keep in perspective that only recently has General (David H.) Petraeus, (commander of Multinational Force Iraq) had the full capability that he asked for to conduct the operations in Iraq," Whitman said. "And I don't think anyone would expect all the benchmarks to be made or achieved at the front end of the surge operations."
Most military commanders on the ground say the U.S. strategy in Iraq, including the surge, "is making a difference, but it is still too early to tell," he said.