By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Sept. 3, 2007 - President Bush has assembled his "war council" here in a surprise holiday weekend-meeting, at this remote air base, in what is probably the group's last meeting before the president makes his decision on next steps for U.S. involvement in the war. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Adm. William Fallon, commander of U.S. Central Command, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker are all slated to meet with top Iraqi political leaders over the next several hours.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, President Jalal Talabani, Vice President Tariq al Hashimi, Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, and Massoud Barzani, president of the semiautonomous Kurdish region, are all slated to meet with the U.S. officials.
"This will be the last big gathering of the president's top military advisors and the Iraqi leadership before the president makes a decision about the way forward," said Geoff Morrell, Pentagon press secretary. "This is very much a decisional meeting. This meeting will put him [the president] much closer to making a decision, if he hasn't already."
The president and his top decision-makers traveled here to discuss progress in Iraq "face-to-face" with key leaders on the ground as he prepares his recommendations for the next steps in the theater, officials said.
The meeting comes days before Petraeus is scheduled to report before Congress on progress made here.
Gates did not address the press during the overnight flight, but a senior Defense Department official traveling with the secretary, speaking on background, told reporters the trip is all within the "context of making a decision" about future plans for Iraq.
"Nothing beats looking your commander in the eye ... and saying 'What do you think? What do we need to do? How's this coming along?" the official said. "I think it's instrumental to the decision process, for what the military recommendations are going to be, and the defense department's recommendations are going to be to the president."
The group is also slated to meet with local tribal leaders to discuss the recent surge of support for coalition forces in the region.
This is Gates' second trip to this western-most province in Iraq that was once considered hopelessly lost to the insurgency. In recent months, though, tribal leaders and forces have begun siding with U.S. and Iraqi forces to repel al Qaeda in Iraq.
The official said Gates has read and heard military and media reports on the emergence of support for coalition forces in the former insurgent stronghold, but wanted to see the progress first-hand.
"This is an opportunity for him to get a perspective on it while he's out there," the official said. "These are other people that are reaching out to work with the coalition, work with the Iraqi government. And even though they are unofficial at this point, it's important for all of us to hear what they have to say and recognize that they can be, and have been up to this point, a healthy part of stabilizing Anbar and other parts of western Baghdad."
Gates is also slated to meet with about 700 Marines at the base during his visit. Nearly 35,000 Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen serve in Multinational Force West.
Al Asad Airbase is the second largest air base in Iraq and is about 120 miles northwest of Baghdad.