By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Dec. 10, 2009 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived here today to meet with Iraqi and U.S. military leaders about continuing progress toward building Iraqi security forces and drawing down the U.S. force presence here to 50,000 by late August. The visit, Gates' first since July, comes as the Iraqis have resolved election law issues and set a March 7 date for national elections, and amid a rash of violence that a senior defense official called an act of desperation by the greatly weakened al-Qaida remnants here.
During Gates' sessions with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani and the Presidency Council, he'll join the chorus of U.S. political and military leaders in condemning the violence, and offer whatever assistance is needed to recover and prevent future attacks, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters.
The most recent attack, just two days ago, involved four car bombings in Baghdad. These, along with other major bomb attacks in recent months, have left an estimated 400 people dead and inflicted heavy damage on four government ministries.
Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, has stated that he has no reason to believe that the violence will slow down the drawdown schedule, Morrell noted.
A senior defense official traveling with Gates called the "Hail Mary" attacks "a desperate attempt [by a diminished al-Qaida] to stay relevant" and to reignite sectarian violence. "I don't think anyone believes they will be successful," he said.
He cited the Iraqi leadership's commitment to preventing any resurgence of the sectarian violence that gripped Iraq three years ago, and the fact that "the Iraqi people are sick of this."
Maliki called on the Iraqi people yesterday not to allow the attacks to disrupt the political process. "This should be a reason for unity and solidarity, because if we face these challenges divided, that means disunity of the Iraqi people against the terrorists and terrorism," he said in a televised address.
Gates will congratulate the Iraqis during his visit for their passage of the long-awaited election laws. He will recognize that "a lot of hard work and compromise" went into the effort, and express hope that "the same spirit of cooperation will carry on after the Iraqi elections" to reduce destabilizing conditions, Morrell said.
Odierno wants to maintain sufficient forces in Iraq during the critical periods just before, during and after the national elections, but does not believe the slippage of the election day schedule to "put any undue pressure" on his drawdown plan, Morrell said. The steepest drop in troop numbers is expected to begin in May.
Gates will deliver a third message as he continues to press Iraqi Kurds and Arabs to iron out differences that have the potential to escalate. He emphasized during his last visit here that tensions between Iraq's Arab-led central government and the self-ruled Kurdish region in the north threaten Iraq's security.
Gates arrived here after a two-day visit to Afghanistan, where the focus was on the 30,000 additional troops who will begin arriving there next week in support of President Barack Obama's new strategy.