By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
Sept. 14, 2007 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today during a television news talk show that he's optimistic about the improved security situation in Iraq. "I would say that we are now where last January I had hoped we'd be this fall. That is, a significant improvement in the security situation in multiple areas of Iraq, that would allow us to begin drawing down our forces," Gates told Jim Lehrer, host of the PBS "News Hour" show, during an interview at the Pentagon.
According to an assessment by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, Gates told Lehrer the security situation in Iraq has improved to such a degree that troop decreases are possible if the current improved security environment continues.
"I hope that by December of 2008, that we would have a significantly-smaller American presence in Iraq; that we would perhaps be somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 brigades, instead of the 20 that we have right now," Gates said.
Petraeus recommended to President Bush and Congress this week that U.S. troop levels in Iraq could be decreased from 20 to 15 brigades by next July, if improved security trends there continue. Also, the general said a 2,200-member contingent of Marines slated to depart from Anbar province in two weeks won't have to be replaced if good security conditions persist.
Bush and Vice President Richard B. Cheney noted in recent public remarks that the addition, or surge, of about 30,000 additional U.S. forces sent into Iraq since January has led to a marked decrease in insurgent operations in Baghdad and in other parts of Iraq.
Improved Iraqi security forces that have moved into areas freed of insurgent activity during surge operations, and increased intelligence provided by concerned Iraqi citizens also has helped to degrade insurgent activities, Gates said.
Gates acknowledged that, sadly, U.S. casualties had risen for a time during the height of surge operations this summer, when joint U.S.-Iraqi forces engaged dug-in insurgents in and around Baghdad and other areas of Iraq.
Coalition losses have decreased since then, the secretary pointed out, in part, because concerned Iraqi citizens have come forward in increasing numbers to tell American troops about enemy-emplaced improvised explosive devices, which have caused the majority of U.S. casualties in Iraq.
The military is "doing everything we can to reduce the casualties," Gates asserted. Measures aimed at protecting the troops include introducing mine-resistant-armor-protected vehicles to Iraq that have proved to be successful in mitigating the effect of powerful, enemy-emplaced roadside bombs.
"We're taking a lot of measures to reduce the risks for our troops, but the sad reality of war is if you are in day-to-day combat, there are going to be casualties," the secretary said.
The Iraq conflict involves political, economic and security dimensions, Gates said, and the role played by Gen. Petraeus and the troops under his command in Iraq rests within the security realm.
"I think the results have been very positive in that respect," Gates said.
Gates cautioned against the desire by some for setting specific dates for additional troop withdrawals from Iraq, noting Petraeus believes the situation in Iraq is much too fluid for such rigid scheduling.
Petraeus's view "is that it is very hard in Iraq to look out more than about six months," Gates explained. "And, that's why the date of March has come up as a time for another evaluation to see what then we can continue to do after July."
And, Petraeus has indicated that U.S. troop decreases from Iraq might continue after July, if conditions warrant so, Gates said.
"He has said that the draw downs will continue after July, but the pace will be dependent on conditions on the ground," Gates said of Pace's current thinking.
"And, I think that while we have laid out the sort of parameters of the withdrawal of these five brigades, in December and July, I think there is a desire to have some flexibility on the ground in terms of the situation that he faces," Gates said.
The secretary also told Lehrer that news reports citing disagreement between Petraeus and the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Iraq military policy are false.
All of the joint chiefs, including Chairman Marine Gen. Peter Pace and U.S. Central Command chief Navy Adm. William J. Fallon "are all on the same page" and in support of Gen. Petraeus's recommendations for the way ahead in Iraq, Gates said.