By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Dec. 5, 2007 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates talked with Iraqi leaders and U.S. commanders here today to explore ways to maintain momentum built in recent months and continue to build on it. Gates met with Iraqi President Jalal Talibani, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Defense Minister Abd al-Qadir al-Mufriji and U.S. commanders. Here on his sixth visit as defense secretary, Gates noted vast security improvements.
During a joint news conference with Mufriji, Gates cited "recent months of dramatic change in the security situation across the nation, a decline in violence to levels not seen since the Samarra mosque bombing nearly two years ago."
As coalition and Iraqi operations have pushed terrorists out of much of southern and western Iraq, they've brought a sense of normalcy and hope to areas that had long gone without it, he told reporters.
Gates noted several specific improvements, including many refugees returning to Iraq, more international investment there, and 70,000 Iraqis "who have taken it upon themselves to defend their neighborhoods."
The secretary emphasized that, while weakened, terrorists in Iraq haven't been beaten, and he cited a migration of terrorists to other parts of the country now experiencing an up-tick in violence. Among them is the northern city of Mosul, which he visited today. Gates met with Multinational Division North and provincial reconstruction team leaders there to learn about their efforts to stop al Qaeda from establishing a new foothold there.
Army Col. Tony Thomas, Multinational Division North's deputy commander, described successes and challenges in his unit's area of responsibility, a vast seven-province region with a diverse population that makes it "a microcosm of Iraq."
That diversity has made the "awakening" among the local population less dramatic than in Anbar, Thomas said. He called the restive Diyala province and the fact that al Qaeda operatives may be seeking refuge there among the biggest concerns in the region.
Gates said the commanders in Mosul told him they're "having a continuing challenge," but the threat they're now facing appears to be far less sophisticated than in the past. In cases where coalition forces once faced one or two dozen opponents at a time, they now typically face far fewer, he said.
"So the nature of the threat has changed, even though the challenge remains," Gates said.
Gates hailed progress being made in training and equipping Iraq's security forces. He also lauded vigilance these troops are demonstrating on the battlefield. "The Iraqi troops stand and fight," he said.
Thomas shared Gates' assessment of the "real growth of the Iraqi security forces" and said the challenge now is to continue their development to the point where they can operate independently, without U.S. assistance.
Gates said commanders in Mosul told him they're looking forward to the return of two Iraqi army battalions currently deployed to Baghdad as part of the troop surge there to confront terrorism. A U.S. battalion with the 1st Armored Division's Task Force Iron also has surged into Baghdad.
At no time during the discussion did commanders request additional U.S. troops in the region, Gates said.
In fact, he reported progress in bringing down the overall troop number in Iraq from its current 166,000. The first units not to be replaced returned home in September, and 1st Brigade Combat Team will begin redeploying this month, he said.
"And assuming that conditions remain as they are or continue to improve, an additional four battalion combat teams will withdraw from Iraq by late July," he said.
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, is expected to make further recommendations to President Bush in the February-March timeframe regarding prospects for further troop reductions in the second half of the year.
Meanwhile, Gates urged Iraq's political leaders to take advantage of the improved security environment to move forward with other concerns, including reconciliation and legislation. He cited the Maliki government's recent signing of the U.S.-Iraq Declaration of Principles for Friendship and Cooperation agreement as a critical step that "sets the stage for future U.S.-Iraqi cooperation."
That document, signed Nov. 26, provides a framework for normalized relationships between the two countries. "More than ever, I believe that the goal of a secure, stable and democratic Iraq is within reach," Gates said.
"Much remains to be done," Gates acknowledged, but emphasized the importance of pushing forward. "We need to be patient, but we also need to be absolutely resolved in our desire to see the nascent signs of hope across Iraq expand and flourish so all Iraqis will enjoy peace and prosperity," he said.