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American Forces Press Service

Gates Discusses Effect of Iraq Failure, Calls for Bipartisan Policy

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 5, 2006 – If the situation in Iraq is mishandled, regional powers may be tempted to become involved in the country -- causing greater problems for the future, defense secretary nominee Robert M. Gates said today.

“Iran is already involved in Iraq and … could become much more so,” Gates said in an appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee as part of the confirmation process. “The Syrians have not been helpful in Iraq, but could become much more harmful to our effort.”

Sunni majority countries in the Middle East also could become involved if the Shiite population inside Iraq lauched an ethnic cleansing program against the Sunnis, he said. If that were to happen, “I think that the Turks would not sit by idly if they saw Iraq beginning to fall apart,” Gates said. “So I think that you could have Saudi Arabia, you could have Turkey, Syria, Iran, all would be involved. We're already seeing Hezbollah involved in training fighters for Iraq.”

Given this danger, it is imperative that the coalition and the Iraqi government manage the next phase of the war in Iraq carefully. “I think that there is a risk that others looking around the world would see that we don't have the patience and we don't have the will,” he said. “So I think those are some of the concerns that we would face if we end up leaving Iraq in chaos.”

Iran is a problem for the United States. Iran is a major oil exporter. It also has a fundamentalist Shiite government dominated by clerics. “I think that their capacity to potentially close off the Persian Gulf to all exports of oil, their potential to unleash a significant wave of terror in the Middle East and in Europe and even here in this country is very real,” Gates said. “(Iranians) are certainly not being helpful in Iraq and are … doing damage to our interests there.”

But even given this lack of help, Gates said, Iran could be even more of a hindrance. “I think that they could provide certain kinds of weapons of mass destruction, particularly chemical and biological weapons, to terrorist groups,” he said. “Their ability to get Hezbollah to further destabilize Lebanon, I think, is very real. I think that while their ability to retaliate against us in a conventional military way is quite limited, they have the capacity to do all of the things, and perhaps more, that I just described.”

The Iraqi government is going to have to make difficult political decisions. The government will ultimately have to decide how it is going to deal with sectarian violence, Gates said. The Iraqi government, among other things, is going to have to set up national reconciliation and figure out the details or a hydrocarbon law that will distribute oil revenues fairly. “How are they going to ensure that these different ethnic and religious groups can live together peacefully?” Gates said. “Those are some of the political decisions that the Iraqis have to make in addition to standing up their military.”

The nominee said other political decisions must be made in the United States. “I believe very deeply that one of the fundamental factors in our success in the Cold War was our ability to have a broad, bipartisan agreement on the fundamental strategy on how to deal with the Soviet Union through nine successive presidencies and many congresses -- with both Republicans and Democrats in support,” Gates said.

He said Republicans and Democrats “argued and fought a lot about tactics and this and that, but there was fundamentally agreement on how to approach the Soviet Union.”

The war on terror could be a generational effort, and all parties must agree on the general approach to the battle. “He said there needs to be broad agreement on a path forward in Iraq and in terms of how the U.S. fights the war on terror “so that we can carry on this struggle in a way that (the terrorists and extremists) don't think we're going to cut and run, that they don't think we're going to walk away from this war on terrorism, and so that they don't think it's going to be easy to start attacking us here at home because we're not willing to take them on abroad.”

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