By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
May 1, 2008 - The question for the American people is not whether the United States ought to be in Iraq, but what the endgame is, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said at Fort Bliss, Texas, today. Gates spoke at a news conference after touring the Restoration and Resilience Center at the West Texas base.
Gates said Iraq will require a residual U.S. presence for years. "I think the question is, at this point, not whether or not we should be in Iraq. We are there," the secretary said. "The question is, what's the endgame?"
The U.S. government and coalition allies in Iraq have to manage the final phases of the Iraqi conflict in a way that doesn't "leave us with a bigger problem in Iraq than we started with," the secretary said.
U.S. officials have said throughout the war that the goal in Iraq is to have a democratically elected, representative government in place that is an ally in the war on terror, is not a threat to its neighbors and yet can still defend itself. Gates said defense leaders have to manage the process in such a way that American servicemembers pull back from the major combat role, turning that mission over to increasingly capable Iraqi security forces.
"My own view is, we are going to require a residual presence in Iraq, of some size, for a period of years, as a stabilization force to help go after al-Qaida, [and] to continue training Iraqis," Gates said. "But I think that, despite our impatience as we enter the sixth year of the war, we still have to handle the end of the war and the end of our participation in major combat in a sensible and thoughtful way."
Gates said he approves of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sending a delegation to Iran to discuss that nation's support of terrorism in Iraq. "I think it's a very important step, and I think that the Iranians do care about what the shape of their future relationship with Iraq will be," Gates said.
He said the delegation will force the Iranians to make a choice to either support or subvert the Iraqi government. "For a Shiite prime minister to send a delegation to Iran, presumably to confront the Iranians with that kind of a choice, I think, is a healthy development," Gates said.
The secretary also received a briefing on the implications of the base realignment and closure process -- Fort Bliss is scheduled to receive between 20,000 and 25,000 soldiers, civilian employees, and family members by 2011 -- and spoke at the Army Sergeants Major Academy.