By John D. Banusiewicz
American Forces Press Service
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates, April 8, 2011 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates concluded a three-day visit to Iraq with two stops in the north today before flying here to meet with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nubayan.
The meeting with the crown prince, who is the deputy supreme commander of the United Arab Emirates armed forces, was the latest in a series of visits Gates has made to Middle East leaders in recent weeks to exchange perspectives during a period of regional unrest.
Gates left Baghdad for northern Iraq this morning to meet in Irbil with President Masoud Barzani of the Kurdish regional government. He then traveled to Mosul where he spoke with soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Division’s 4th Advise and Assist Brigade working in U.S. Division North.
The secretary thanked the soldiers for their work in mentoring Iraq and Kurdish forces. As the person who signed their deployment orders and those of all other service members sent into harm’s way, he added, his highest priority has been to get them what they need to complete their mission successfully and go home safely.
Noting that he was pleased to be able to offer his gratitude to them in person, Gates asked that the soldiers pass his personal thanks to their families the next time they email or call home.
“Their support is what makes it possible for you to do what you do,” the secretary said.
In a question-and-answer session, Gates said a continued U.S. military presence in Iraq beyond this year is possible if the Iraqi government wants it. An agreement between the two nations calls for all U.S. forces to be out of Iraq by Dec. 31. The secretary said he discussed the possibility of a continued U.S. military presence in Iraq with all of the Iraqi officials he met with this week.
“My basic message to them has been [that] if there is to be a presence to help them with some of the areas where they still need help, we’re open to that possibility,” he said. “But they have to ask, and time is running out in Washington, because we’ve got a lot going on around the world. And in terms of prioritizing and how we employ and deploy the force, we’ve got to make some decisions.”
Any presence beyond this year would be a fraction of the 47,000 U.S. troops serving in Iraq today, Gates added, and would have to be worked out if Iraqi officials seek it. Whether it would be for a finite period or the long term and what kind of mission it would be would depend on what the Iraqis want and what the United States can provide and afford, he said.