By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Sept. 16, 2008 - When dust storms shut down helicopter traffic in the Iraqi capital yesterday, officials faced a logistical challenge. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, here to meet with U.S. and Iraqi leaders and to participate in today's Multinational Force Iraq change of command, needed to get from Camp Victory to the International Zone. But improved security here presented an option that probably wouldn't even have been considered during the secretary's seven previous visits to Iraq. Gates rode in a regular armored sedan, and his party traveled in mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles as they made the trip on the airport road.
Earlier in the day, Army Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, commander of Multinational Corps Iraq commander, told reporters traveling with Gates that the levels of violence in Iraq have dropped 80 percent since this time last year. He said the number of roadside-bomb attacks had dropped by 50 percent.
In the International Zone, Gates met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Defense Minister Abd al-Qadir al-Mufriji. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, who relinquishes command of Multinational Force Iraq today, accompanied the secretary to the meetings.
Earlier in the day, Gates met with Iraqi military and tribal leaders at Camp Victory. Tribal sheiks and Iraqi military leaders spoke to the secretary about progress in re-settling Iraqis driven from their homes due to ethnic violence. Baghdad commander Iraqi Gen. Abood told the secretary that his men are prepared to defend the returnees with their blood, and spoke of the close cooperation between the soldiers and police of his command and the "Sons of Iraq" citizen security groups.
Gates told the leaders that he was honored to meet with them. "I can hardly believe with my own eyes the dramatic changes for the better," he said. "The changes are due to the sacrifices of Iraqis and our own coalition forces."
Officials traveling with Gates said the secretary is encouraged by the Iraqi government's commitment to take over the Sons of Iraq program. Some 54,000 Iraqis, formerly paid by coalition forces, will come under the federal government.
Gates told Iraqi television reporters that he was pleased to come to Baghdad for the change of command between Petraeus and Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno. "It's also an opportunity to visit good friends like the prime minister and the minister of defense," Gates said.
The Iraqi reporters asked Gates if American forces will withdraw from the country in the near future. "The withdrawal of American forces from Iraq began in December and continued since that time," he said. "As the president announced last week, [this] will continue."