By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Sept. 20, 2007 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates spent this morning on Capitol Hill and plans to spend more time there next week, a top Defense Department spokesman said here today. Gates is talking to members of Congress in hopes of making the war a less contentious, political crisis and more of a manageable long-term commitment to the region, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters. This morning was the latest in a series of meetings the secretary has had with lawmakers after the president's announcement of the way forward for Iraq last week, Morrell said.
"They have been discussing the situation in Iraq and the president's plan to gradually draw down forces in Iraq and adjust the mission of those forces that remain," he said.
Transitioning U.S. forces' mission in Iraq is dependent on improving conditions there, Morrell said, and he cited recent signs of progress in the region.
He quoted U.S. leaders in Iraq as saying total attacks have declined in 10 of the past 13 weeks to the lowest levels since February 2006, when the Golden Mosque in Samarra, was bombed. In addition, power output in the region has hit record highs, even for peak periods during Saddam Hussein's reign.
Gates will talk with the Senate Appropriations Committee next week about the Defense Department budget request to fund the global war on terror for the next year, Morrell said.
Morrell also said the secretary asked officials for information on the Defense Department's private security contracts in Iraq after a shooting incident there this week by State Department security contractor Blackwater USA. Morrell said this is does not constitute a comprehensive review by the secretary's office, but that the questions are looking into how the Defense Department uses security contractors in Iraq.
Morrell noted that the shooting incident involved a State Department security contractor and that the Defense Department does not have security contracts with Blackwater in Iraq. The Defense Department hires 137,000 contractors through more than a dozen different companies in Iraq, Morrell said, adding that the department has about 7,000 private security contractors in the region. These positions are better filled by contractors so the military can focus on combat-related activities and "going after the enemy," he said.
In other news, Morrell reported that the Defense Department has authorized more mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, with a v-shaped hull that better protect troops from roadside-bomb blasts. The military services are now slated to receive more than 15,000 of the vehicles, up from 7,700 originally planned, he said. Under the new plan, the Army will receive 10,000; the Marine Corps, 3,700; the Navy, 544; the Air Force, 697; and Special Operations Command will take 333. Officials hope to deliver 1,500 to troops in Iraq by the end of the year, he said.
"We want to make sure we have enough to meet the needs of the force to best protect them," Morrell said.