U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates flew into Iraq Monday for a change of command ceremony he says marks the beginning of a new phase in the conflict- in which the United States will gradually reduce its military presence. VOA's Al Pessin is traveling with the secretary, and filed this report shortly after arriving in Baghdad.
Secretary Gates says he wants to get a first-hand report on efforts to improve intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities in Iraq, one of his main efforts in recent months. He also wants to see the impact of the withdrawal of the five surge brigades President Bush ordered to Iraq last year, a withdrawal that reduced U.S. combat power in the country by 25 percent.
On route to Iraq, Secretary Gates told reporters on his aircraft that with the end of the surge, the conflict is moving to a new phase.
"We are clearly in a mission transition, a transition from the focus of the surge brigades and the surge strategy to more Iraqi units in the lead, us in more of a support and over-watch role," he said. "There's no question we will still be engaged, as we are, but the areas in which we are seriously engaged will, I think, continue to narrow."
Secretary Gates said the surge enabled commanders to deploy American troops to areas where they had not been before, to defeat insurgents and hold the ground. Now, more and more of that responsibility will fall to Iraqi forces. He says U.S. commanders believe the Iraqis are up to the task, or they would not have recommended the end of the surge, and the further small withdrawals President Bush announced last week. He also says Iraqi leaders, who are also on his schedule, need to continue their political reconciliation in order to block the efforts of groups he says would still like to reverse the country's progress.
During this visit, Secretary Gates will preside over a change of command ceremony marking the end of the tenure of General David Petraeus as commander of coalition forces. General Petraeus' leadership, and the new counterinsurgency doctrine he helped write, are widely credited with turning the tide of the Iraq war. Now, Secretary Gates says the general's successor and former deputy, Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, will have a somewhat different mission.
"The challenge, I think, for General Odierno is how do we work with the Iraqis to preserve the gains that have already been achieved, expand upon them, even as the numbers of U.S. forces are shrinking," he said.
General Petraeus will continue to play a major role in the Iraq war in his new post, as head of U.S. Central Command, which supervises all U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia. Part of his job will be to try to transfer his Iraq success to Afghanistan, where attacks by Taliban and al-Qaida militants have been on the rise.