By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
July 28, 2009 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates began a previously unannounced visit to Iraq with a stop to examine the prototype of the U.S. advisory and assistance brigades. The new brigade is undergoing testing at this dusty Iraqi air base in the southern part of the country. Gates also will meet with Iraqi political leaders and consult with American commanders.
This is the secretary's first look at the revamped brigades. "By the end of August next year, our change of mission really kicks in, and our presence will be built around a half a dozen advisory and assistance brigades," a senior defense official said, speaking on background.
The brigade here is a test-bed for the concept. The first brigade trained in the United States under the new set-up --– the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade --– will deploy later this year.
The brigades are a reorganization of the Army's basic brigade combat teams, officials said, noting that after the Iraqi elections at the end of the year, these new brigades will be the mainstay of American presence in Iraq.
The brigades will advise Iraqi units and will have the firepower to aid Iraqi units if necessary.
The meetings in Iraq follow meetings Gates had in Washington with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki last week. In Washington, the prime minister spoke about a possible role for American troops in Iraq after 2011. The Iraqi-U.S. forces agreement calls for all American troops to be out of Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011.
The senior defense official said the secretary will not talk about the role of U.S. forces in Iraq after 2011. "We have a security agreement. It calls for us to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011," the senior official said. "The secretary did mention that he looks forward to having a normalized security relationship with Iraq."
Defense Department officials want any security relationship with Iraq to mirror relationships the United States has around the world. Small numbers of U.S. troops are in many countries around the world, training with local forces, teaching new tactics or showing how new equipment can help local militaries, the official said, and the presence of U.S. forces does not typically mean tens of thousands of personnel in bases all over the country.
In the past, Gates has expressed his personal view that "he would see the need for U.S. forces to remain there after 2011," the official said. "But obviously that is strictly predicated on a new bilateral agreement that would allow for such a thing."
For now, the official said, the question is moot, because "until the Iraqis come back and say what they need, we don't even know if this is in the realm of the possible."