U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in Iraq to get an update from U.S. commanders and senior Iraqi officials, as the United States prepares to resume the drawdown of its forces to the level before the surge President Bush ordered last year. Meanwhile, fighting, attacks kill 50 in Iraq. VOA's Al Pessin is traveling with the secretary and filed this report from Baghdad.
After spending four days in Europe discussing mostly NATO's mission in Afghanistan, Secretary Gates headed east to focus on the other major U.S. defense issue, the war in Iraq. On his aircraft, the secretary told reporters he will be looking for an update from the top U.S. and coalition commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus.
"I will obviously be interested in hearing from General Petraeus about his evaluation of where he stands and what more work he feels he needs to do before he is ready to come back with his recommendations," said Secretary Gates.
In early April, General Petraeus is to make public his recommendation for U.S. force levels in Iraq for the rest of the year, after the surge troops finish withdrawing in July. Secretary Gates has said he hopes the withdrawal can continue at the same pace, but General Petraeus has said he might call for a pause in the drawdown to assess its impact on the security situation. Secretary Gates says that will be part of a broad discussion he will have with General Petraeus over nearly two hours on Monday.
Whatever General Petraeus recommends will be combined with reports from his military superiors and Secretary Gates, and submitted to President Bush for a final decision on troop levels.
On this trip, Secretary Gates will also visit a forward operating base to get a briefing from ground commanders, and he will meet with senior Iraqi leaders. He was asked what he will have to say to them.
"First of all to congratulate them on the progress that they have made with the passage of the Accountability and Justice Law, the amnesty law, and basically ask them for their appraisal of progress on the Provincial Powers Law, and see how they think the process is working, now [that] they seem to have become energized over the last few weeks, and see what the prospects are for further success over the next couple of months," he said.
The surge of U.S. forces and the resulting security improvements were designed to create a better atmosphere for the Iraqi government and parliament to approve a series of key laws that are seen as crucial for establishing long-term stability in Iraq. Progress has been much slower than U.S. officials would like, and Secretary Gates says he will convey the United States' continued eagerness for that process to be concluded.
The secretary says he does not plan to bring up the long-term U.S.-Iraq security agreement that officials will soon begin to negotiate. He says such discussions at his level would be premature.