U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Western Iraq Wednesday, the place where U.S. troops and local tribal leaders began an effort four years ago that helped turn the tide of the Iraq war. Gates stopped in al-Anbar Province on his way to Baghdad to mark the formal end of U.S. combat operations in the country.
The secretary's military 747 jumbo jet touched down at al-Asad Air Base shortly after sunrise - a moment reminiscent of his last visit here, when he came in on a military combat jet and was joined by then-President George W. Bush in his 747, known as Air Force One.
At that time, almost exactly three years ago, Mr. Bush and Gates were marking the Anbar Awakening, the decision by local tribal leaders to reject al-Qaida and join forces with the U.S. Marines, who had been struggling to establish security in the province. Wednesday, he was asked whether, with the new "advise and assist" mission, the United States is still at war in the country.
"No, I would say we're not," he said. "Combat operations have ceased. We're still going to work with the Iraqis on counterterrorism. We are still doing a lot of training and advising and assisting. That's what this brigade is all about. So, I would say we have moved into the final phase of our engagement in Iraq."
Gates says events in Ramadi played a key role in turning around the security situation in Iraq.
"Visiting Ramadi today is especially meaningful for me and my staff," he said. "We have very personal and enduring connections to this city and this province. Many of us, like many of you, were touched first-hand by the terrible violence that not long ago consumed this area."
A commander at Camp Ramadi, Lieutenant Colonel Buddy Houston, says the mission now is very different from the mission the Gates visit in 2007.
"The purpose of our Advise and Assist Brigade is to enable Iraqi security forces to provide sustainable security in Anbar Province," said Houston.
Houston says that includes preparing the Iraqis to operate completely on their own after the remaining U.S. troops leave, which is scheduled for the end of next year.
Secretary Gates says the United States might be willing to keep some number of troops here to continue the training and assisting, but says any request to do so would have to come from a new Iraqi government. Iraqi leaders have been arguing about the formation of a new government since parliament elections, five months ago.
The secretary was also asked whether the Iraq War was worthwhile for the United States.
"Figuring out, in retrospect, how you deal with the war - even if the outcome is a good one from the standpoint of the United States - it'll always be clouded by how it began. And so, I think that this is one of the reasons this war remains so controversial at home," he said.
Still, he says President Barack Obama has ensured that Iraq will continue to receive the attention it needs, even as focus continues to shift to Afghanistan, because he put Vice President Joe Biden in charge of Iraq policy and he regularly calls key officials together to monitor the situation.