By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Sept. 5, 2007 - After attending meetings Sept. 3 in Iraq, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is more optimistic about the situation in the country, a Pentagon spokesman said today. Geoff Morrell said Gates left meetings with U.S. military and civilian leaders and Iraqi leaders convinced progress is being made. President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also attended the meetings at Al Asad Air Base in Iraq's Anbar province.
The meetings gave the president a chance to consult with Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, Multinational Force Iraq commander, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker. Gates "believes it is essential for the president to speak directly to his senior military leaders before making a decision on the way forward in Iraq," Morrell said.
Morrell said one highlight of the trip was a meeting with local tribal leaders and sheikhs who have been instrumental in turning the tables on al Qaeda in Anbar. "Less than a year ago, al Qaeda was touting Anbar as the capital of its future caliphate," Morrell said. "However, a few courageous tribal leaders stood up, rejected al Qaeda's dark and medieval vision for their future and joined with U.S. Marines to defeat the terrorists in Anbar. Anbaris were the first in the Middle East to live under al Qaeda rule, and if our progress in Iraq continues, they will hopefully be the last."
The progress in Anbar is being driven from the bottom up, Morrell said, and it needs to be joined by progress from the top down. "Monday's meeting of leaders from the central government and the tribes is another step in the right direction," he said.
Morrell said there has been a clear reduction in sectarian violence in Iraq. "Sectarian killings have dropped to about half the level they were in December of 2006, when, as you remember, tensions between Sunni and Shiia groups was particularly high," he said.
This does not mean that sectarianism is not a problem. Iraqi police units are rife with sectarian blocs. "The Iraqi government has acknowledged, and our commanders in Iraq have also, that clearly there are problems that persist within the police force when it comes to sectarianism," Morell said. "We have been working very hard to try to rid the national police force and the local police force ... of sectarianism."
Defense leaders understand that building an Iraqi police force and an army are long-term projects, the spokesman said. The Iraqi police are a work in progress, he said. "Has this happened at the pace we would like? Ideally, this would all happen much faster, whether it be standing up the Iraqi army or ridding the national police of sectarianism," Morrell said.
"Obviously we would like this stuff to happen sooner than it has, but we do not believe either project or process should be abandoned because it hasn't happened at the pace which we would like," he continued. "We believe there is enough progress taking place on both fronts that this is an endeavor worth pursuing, and we believe we will get to the point we need to get so that the Iraqis rely far less on us for their protection and more on their own people."