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SECDEF Gates Gets An Ear Full From US Commanders On Strategy In Iraq

Commanders Wary of Gates Proposal

Associated Press |December 21, 2006

BAGHDAD, Iraq - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is hearing doubts from war commanders about what could be accomplished by a possible increase of U.S. troops in Iraq, but some of the troops on the ground say it would be a good idea.

The new defense leader is on a visit to Iraq with a high-level entourage to assess options for calming violence in the country as U.S. President George W. Bush considers sending thousands more troops.

Gates, on only his third day on the job, was briefed Wednesday by U.S. military officials and Iraqi leaders.

His itinerary is being kept secret in advance for security reasons. The trip, which was not disclosed until after he landed in Baghdad early Wednesday, came as Bush deliberates over a new war strategy expected to be unveiled next month.

Originally expected before Christmas, the new policy was delayed it in part to hear recommendations from Gates after his return to Washington.

"Secretary Gates is going to be an important voice in the Iraq strategy review that's under way," Bush told reporters at a White House news conference Wednesday.

After meeting with top U.S. generals at Camp Victory, Gates said Wednesday that he had only begun to determine how to reshape U.S. war policy. 'We discussed the possibility of a surge and the potential for what it might accomplish,' he told reporters.

He acknowledged that that rushing thousands more Americans to the battlefront could prompt Iraqis to slow their effort to take control of their country, calling that "clearly a consideration" in mapping out future strategy.

"The commanders out here have expressed a concern about that," Gates said.

Top U.S. commanders also have worried that even a short-term troop increase might bring only a temporary respite to the violence - or none at all - while creating shortages of fresh troops for future missions.

But some of the Soldiers with Gates Thursday morning said extra forces would help.

"Sir, I think we need to just keep doing what we're doing," said Spc. Jason T. Green, with the 101st Military Intelligence Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Infantry Division. "I really think we need more troops here. With more presence on the ground, more troops might hold them off long enough to where we can get the Iraqi Army trained up."

During an hour-long question-and-answer session with about 15 Soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division, the 1st Infantry Division and the 10th Mountain Division, Gates got a roomful of nods when he asked if beefing up U.S. strength would be helpful.
"More troops would help us integrate the Iraq Army into patrols more," said Pfc. Cassandra Wallace, from the 10th Mountain Division.

One option would add five or more additional combat brigades, or roughly 20,000 troops, to the 140,000 already there.

Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq and one of several generals who met with Gates, said he supports boosting troop levels only when there is a specific purpose for their deployment.

"I'm not necessarily opposed to the idea, but what I want to see happen is when, if we do bring more American troops here, they help us progress to our strategic objectives," Casey told reporters during a news conference with Gates and military leaders.

Gen. John Abizaid, top U.S. commander in the Middle East, said the military is "looking at every possible thing that might influence the situation to make Baghdad in particular more secure."

Gates said his scheduled discussions with Iraqi leaders would be crucial to the advice he takes back to Bush.

He was noncommittal when asked whether the sectarian violence in Baghdad can be quashed without taking action against the Mahdi Army of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Al-Sadr is a main supporter of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Gates said he is looking for ways to help the Iraqi government bring down the violence and "that will be a principal theme of discussions."

Polling shows the American public has become weary of a war that has claimed the lives of more than 2,950 U.S. Soldiers and marines. Violence continues, particularly of late between Sunnis and Shiites.

The financial toll is high as well. The Pentagon is circulating a request for an additional $99.7 billion to pay for the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. So far, nearly four years of war in Iraq have cost about $350 billion .

In addition to a possible short-term troop increase to bring the escalating violence in Baghdad and Anbar province under control, Bush is considering removing U.S. combat forces and accelerating the training and equipping of Iraqi security forces. Military leaders are also considering an increase in the number of American advisers for Iraqi security forces.

Echoing Casey and other commanders, Bush said he would only agree to a temporary troop surge if an achievable mission could be defined.