As US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited Baghdad yesterday, the New York Times reported:
Mr. Gates and American military commanders have made no secret of their view that some of the 47,000 American troops in Iraq should remain after 2011 as a stability force, particularly as tensions have flared between Arabs and Kurds in the north. But Mr. Gates said that the Iraqi government must first request that the American troops stay. That has not happened yet, much to the growing impatience of American commanders who say they need to know now in order to plan into 2012.
“We are willing to have a presence beyond that time,” Mr. Gates told the soldiers at Camp Liberty. “But we’ve got a lot of commitments around the world.” He added that “if folks are going to want us to have a presence, we’re going to need to get on with it pretty quickly in terms of our planning and our ability to figure out where we get the forces.”
He also said that although the Iraqis had shown interest in keeping some American troops in the country, “The politics are such, we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Mr. Gates was obliquely referring to the politics surrounding Mr. Maliki, who is hemmed in by a bloc of politicians loyal to the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr. Mr. Sadr, whose support Mr. Maliki relied on to secure a second term as prime minister, is opposed to any delay in the American withdrawal. Any extension of the American troop presence would require the politically risky decision by Mr. Maliki to ask for it.
The top American commander in Iraq, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, made clear on Thursday that Iraq was not ready to defend itself, particularly from the skies. He said the Iraqis also needed help with intelligence gathering, logistics and the use of different weapons systems in coherent warfare. He said that there was a debate in the Iraqi government about whether the United States should stay or not, and that the wind of that debate was not blowing in one direction, “It’s blowing in every direction.”
Despite the uncertainties, Mr. Gates told the troops at Camp Liberty that “Iraq has been an extraordinary success story for the United States military.” In briefly reflective comments, he recalled for them the first of some dozen trips to Iraq as defense secretary, in December 2006, when violence was raging and he held a news conference at a nearby base while a firefight went on in the background.
Today, Mr. Gates said, countries in turmoil across the Middle East “would be happy if they could get to where Iraq is today — it isn’t perfect, but it’s new and it is a democracy and people do have rights.”
In conclusion, he recalled that when he took over as defense secretary, people said he would be evaluated by how Iraq turned out. “And I’ll let people judge for themselves,” he said.
Meanwhile, Al Jazeera‘s Jane Arraf tweets that demonstrators gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square today, burning American flags and protesting against the continuation of the US occupation. The protesters also say even the US embassy — the biggest embassy in the world — is part of the occupation.