U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in Baghdad, where he says he will press Iraqi leaders to move toward reconciliation and prove they can lay the foundation for a peaceful society. He is the third senior U.S. official to carry that message to Baghdad in a week. VOA's Al Pessin is traveling with the secretary and filed this report from Baghdad.
Speaking to reporters on the U.S. military transport plane that brought him here for the fourth time in his six months in office, Secretary Gates acknowledged that his message is not new, and he said the U.S. government is not satisfied with the Iraqi response so far.
"It'll be the same message I've been delivering since December, since my first trip out here, and that is that our troops are buying them time to pursue reconciliation, that frankly we're disappointed in the progress so far and hope that this most recent bombing by al-Qaida won't further disrupt or delay the process," he said.
Secretary Gates noted that the last of the extra troops President Bush ordered to Iraq in January have only begun operations during the past few days. Secretary Gates indicated now is the time for Iraqi leaders to move forward with a series of laws designed to promote reconciliation, even though violence is continuing, with high death tolls among U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces and civilians.
That is the same message carried to Baghdad during the past week by former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, and by the commander of all U.S. troops in the Middle East, Admiral William Fallon.
Secretary Gates said there is a reason for the high-level visits with Iraqi leaders.
"There's enormous interest in their ability to make progress in demonstrating to the Iraqi people that they are prepared to lay the foundations for a future Iraqi state in which all of the different elements can live in peace with one another. I think that opportunity is still open," he said.
He he did not say how long that opportunity will last, and he acknowledged his staff is looking at other options for U.S. policy in case the current effort fails. He did not say what those options are, but officials in Washington have spoken about a partial withdrawal of U.S. troops combined with a change in their duties to focus more on protecting Iraq's borders and training its troops, and less on day-to-day security operations.
Secretary Gates will have a long meeting Saturday with the U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, who is to make a progress report in September that will play a large role in deciding the future of U.S. policy toward Iraq. Some military officers have said September is too soon to fully assess the impact of the troop surge and the new counterinsurgency strategy General Petraeus is pursuing. But Secretary Gates says the September report will still be important.
"Well, I think we should have a sense of direction in September. I mean, it may still be, there still will be a lot of uncertainty, but I think we'll have some sense of direction and trends on where things are headed," he said.
Secretary Gates also defended General Petraeus from critics in Congress who say he has been too optimistic about progress since he took command in Iraq earlier this year. The secretary says the general has reported publicly on both progress and problems, and he expects him to do the same in the September report.