By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
April 10, 2008 - Sharply decreased violence in Iraq has set the stage for the departure of the remaining surge forces by the end of July, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee here today. Violence in Iraq "has declined dramatically since this time last year," Gates told committee members. "In addition to the drop in U.S. casualties, we have seen a dramatic and encouraging decline in the loss of Iraqi civilians."
Gates and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were on Capitol Hill to update legislators on Iraq and Afghanistan military operations.
Iraqi deaths caused by ethnocentric conflict are down by about 90 percent, Gates reported, while overall civilian deaths have decreased by 70 percent compared to a year ago.
In addition,, Iraqis increasingly are stepping up to assist U.S. and coalition troops in battling insurgents in their country, Gates said. About 100,000 extra Iraqi security forces fought alongside around 30,000 additional U.S. troops as part of last year's surge operations, he noted.
Gates also said recent Iraqi military operations against insurgents and criminal in Basra and other areas of Iraq are heartening. The Iraqis were not capable of launching a military mission of that scale a year ago, he noted.
Half of Iraq's 18 provinces now are under Iraqi control, Gates said. Anbar is anticipated to be the 19th province to come under Iraqi jurisdiction, which Gates cited as "a remarkable development" given the grim security situation in that province just 18 months ago.
"The Iraqi forces will shoulder more of the burden as we reduce our forces over time," Gates said.
Iraq also is experiencing a growing economy, Gates said, noting growth in its gross domestic product is expected to exceed 7 percent this year. Iraq's oil exports are above prewar levels, and the country will earn almost $40 billion in oil revenue in 2007, he said.
"These economic gains also mean that Iraqis should shoulder ever-greater responsibility for economic reconstruction and equipping their forces," Gates said.
On the legislative front, Iraqi lawmakers recently passed measures related to pensions, de-Baathification reform and other matters that will help Iraq heal its ethnic and political divisions, Gates said.
"Clearly, these laws must be implemented in the spirit of reconciliation or at least accommodation," Gates said, adding that such progressive legislative actions should not be ignored or dismissed.
Despite such progress, there are still reasons to be cautious regarding the situation in Iraq, Gates said. Al-Qaida in Iraq is a wounded but still-lethal force, he noted.
Al-Qaida in Iraq "is trying to regenerate itself and will continue to launch gruesome terrorist attacks," Gates predicted.
Gates said he and other senior military and civilian defense leaders support President Bush's decision to withdraw the surge forces from Iraq. About 140,000 U.S. troops will remain in Iraq after all surge forces are withdrawn by the end of July.
"At this point, it is difficult to know what impact, if any, this reduction will have on the security situation" in Iraq, Gates observed.
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, has recommended a 45-day period of evaluation after the return of the surge troops to assess the situation.
"I do not anticipate this period of review to be an extended one," Gates said, "and I would emphasize that the hope, depending on conditions on the ground, is to reduce our presence further this fall."
Gates, however, cautioned Iraq observers to be realistic, noting that the security situation there remains fragile and that gains achieved can be reversed.
The secretary acknowledged ongoing public debate and division about the way forward in Iraq. "This is not a surprise. The truth is, perhaps excepting World War II, all of our country's wars have been divisive and controversial here at home," Gates observed. "That is the glory of our democracy and gives the lie to the notion we are a warlike people."
Gates said he became the senior defense civilian 18 months ago with the hope to craft a bipartisan path regarding U.S. Iraq policy that would sustain a steadily lower, but still adequate and necessary U.S. military commitment to that country.
"I continue to harbor this hope, ... and I will continue to work for it," Gates said. "But, I do fear the understandable frustration over years of war and dismay over the sacrifices already made may result in decisions that are gratifying in the short term but very costly to our country and the American people in the long term."
Mullen told committee members that he and the Joint Chiefs fully support Petraeus' recommendations to withdraw the surge brigades from Iraq and to be provided time to evaluate and assess the situation before making any further force-structure decisions.
"That seemed prudent to me," Mullen said. "It's not a blank check; it's not an open-ended commitment of troops.
"It's merely recognition of the fact that war is unpredictable," the four-star admiral emphasized.
There is no attached timetable to possible additional U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq, because flexibility is necessary to ensure that the right decisions are made at the right time, Mullen explained.
"It is the speed and uncertainty of this war, not just the enemy itself, that we are battling," Mullen observed. This has always been the case in counterinsurgency operations, he said, which tend to be "tough, grueling, messy, and yes, even lengthy work."
The surge of forces has helped improve security, but it never was intended to be the remedy for all challenges in Iraq, Mullen said.
Iraqi leaders were to use the breathing space provided by the surge to work toward political reconciliation and economic progress. "That such progress has been slower and of mixed success is, I believe, more a function of the difficulties of representative government in Iraq, than it is of the level of security enabled by military operations," Mullen observed.
"Our troops can open many doors, but they cannot force Iraqi leaders through them," he said.
As the last of the surge brigades return home, he said, the remaining U.S. troops will continue to help Iraq's government achieve additional political and economic progress while assisting Iraqi security forces in defending their country.
"But, I see no reason why we cannot accomplish these goals, while also keeping open the option of an informed drawdown of forces throughout the remainder of the year," Mullen told committee members. "Such options are critical, because while Iraq is rightly our most pressing priority right now, it is not the only one."