By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Dec. 13, 2008 - The mission in Iraq is still relevant despite the recent political attention on the fight in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told troops here today. "The enemies of a stable and self-governing Iraq are resilient, they are lethal and they are always looking to reverse the gains of the last year and a half," Gates said during a "town hall" session with troops.
Gates traveled to this Iraqi city for a few hours to talk with senior leaders about security conditions on the ground and to meet with troops. He met with Multinational Force Commander Ray Odierno to get his assessment of operations over the next six months as he prepares to move his troops out of Iraqi cities as part of the newly signed status of forces agreement between the United States and Iraq.
The defense secretary also had lunch here with mid-grade noncommissioned officers, and then met in the town hall session with about 170 troops from different services working here on Joint Base Balad.
Gates told the troops the mission here will change over the next six months as the Iraqi security forces begin taking more control and U.S. combat troops move out of the cities.
"Iraq has been a long and hard fight, and to be sure the mission is not over, though its parameters and focus will change," he said.
Gates said the U.S. military is in its final stages here, as it prepares to have all of its troops out by the agreement's deadline of 2011.
"It is vital that we get the end game right here and that will continue to depend on your courage, commitment and sacrifice," he said.
Gates praised the efforts of those working at the air base, the busiest in the U.S. military. The base is a logistical hub for Iraq and provides medical evacuation services, close air support, supply and transportation and reconnaissance.
Gates said he was especially proud of its accomplishments in medical evacuation.
"When it comes to MedEvac you have broken new ground in the history of warfare and you have saved lives in the process," Gates said.
This is the third town hall meeting with troops this week. He typically meets with small groups of troops and families, often without senior leaders present, in order to get an uncensored perspective of their needs and views. These meetings and frank discussions have shaped Gate's thinking about everything from day-to-day operations and quality of life issues, he said.
"Testifying before Congress is nothing compared to meeting with a group of spouses from Fort Hood, (Texas)," Gates joked.
After the town hall, Gates answered questions from the troops ranging from whether he envisions any changes in deployment lengths, the economic effects on the Defense Department budget, and if there are any changes in the war forthcoming based on the next administration in January.
This visit wrapped up Gates three-day trip to the Middle East, and it was his third meeting this week with senior U.S. military commanders assessing the two wars.
Before meeting here with Odierno, Gates met in Afghanistan with Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, International Security Assistance Force commander, and in Bahrain with Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command.
Following his meetings here Gates left for Washington, D.C.