By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
RAMADI, Iraq, Sept. 1, 2010 – The war in Iraq is over and the United States is entering the final phase of the U.S. engagement in Iraq, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today.
U.S. combat operations have ceased, the secretary said. American forces are still participating in some counterinsurgency operations with the Iraqis, and they are training and advising and assisting Iraqi forces, but the United States is not at war in Iraq.
Gates said a lot has changed in Iraq since he took office in December 2006. Then Iraq was in desperate straits. Ethnic violence – encouraged by al-Qaida in Iraq – threatened to tear the country apart. Sunni and Shia Arabs were at each other’s throats and both groups distrusted the Kurds. Insurgents were planting roadside bombs and driving car bombs into Iraqi and coalition forces.
In those dark days came the decision to surge 30,000 more American troops into the country to take and hold areas until Iraqi security forces could take their place.
It worked, but American servicemembers paid a terrible price. Since the invasion in 2003, a total of 4,427 American servicemembers have died in Iraq. Some 34,268 have been wounded. Hundreds of thousands have served in Iraq – often repeatedly.
Reporters asked Gates if that sacrifice was worth it. “If Iraq ends up a democratic country that is a constructive participant in international life … then I think looking back the potential for it being the core of significant change in this region as a democratic state is hard to underestimate,” he said. “Our men and women in uniform believe we have accomplished something that makes the sacrifice and the bloodshed not to have been in vain. Our men and women have accomplished something really quite extraordinary.”
The secretary is optimistic about the future of the country. He said that “politics has broken out here,” with opposing sides talking about forming a government rather than shooting at each other. “The efforts of al-Qaida to reignite ethnic violence that we saw in 2006 and 2007 have not been successful,” he said. “I’m optimistic that these guys will form a coalition government and continue to make progress. This is going to be a work in progress for a long time. This is a new thing in the several thousand year history of Iraq, and it’s a pretty new thing in this region of the world.”
Gates gave two examples of the changes he has seen just since arriving in Iraq this morning. The first is how empty it was at al Asad Air Base, where he landed. At one time, the base housed 22,000 Marines and soldiers.
The other example was reflected in the questions from the soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team. Gates visited the soldiers here and held a question and answer session with them. The soldiers of the advise and assist brigade “did not ask questions about security or issues relating to Iraq so much as they were about their own situations and plans going forward,” Gates said.
There will continue to be tough times in Iraq for the 50,000 American troops that remain to advise and assist Iraqi security forces. He told the soldiers, for example, that he would not favor stopping the special pays they receive for their service here.