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United States Might Accelerate Troop Surge in Iraq

26 January 2007

Pentagon chief optimistic that NATO can maintain Afghan initiative

Washington -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the U.S. troop surge to Iraq might accelerate, and he warned that any foreign fighters seeking to harm coalition troops will be targeted. He also said he is optimistic about the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.

However, Gates said, a recent congressional resolution questioning President Bush’s policy in Iraq “emboldens the enemy.”

Gates met with Pentagon reporters January 26 for the first time since taking office. Departing from the style of his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, Gates opted not to hold a televised news conference and instead spoke with reporters informally in a meeting room near his Pentagon office.

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee January 24 voted on a nonbinding resolution that expresses concern about President Bush’s plan to “surge” an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq, in addition to the 137,000 currently serving. (See related article.)

General David Petraeus, the new commander of coalition forces in Iraq, worked closely with the president on the troop surge plan. Therefore, Gates said, the draft Senate resolution “says that the general going out to take command of the arena shouldn’t have the resources he thinks he needs to be successful.” Gates also said, “[I]t’s pretty clear” that such a congressional resolution “emboldens the enemy and our adversaries.”

The defense secretary added that “any indication of flagging will in the United States gives encouragement” to enemy fighters. “I’m sure that that's not the intent behind the resolutions, but I think it may be the effect.”

Rather than curtail the troop buildup, Gates said he is looking for ways speed it up.

“We are going to see if the timetable and the dispatch of the brigades can be accelerated,” Gates said. The U.S. military faces “logistical constraints,” however, in how quickly its forces can be deployed. These constraints include giving U.S. personnel enough time to make personal and family arrangements before departing for Iraq.

Gates said it is unclear whether the increased U.S. presence in Baghdad, Iraq, will result in more casualties. There is a possibility, he said, that groups opposed to Iraq’s elected government will avoid confrontations “in the hope that they can outwait us.”

A key element to U.S. strategy for Iraq, Gates said, is that the boost in troops is aimed at augmenting Iraqi government forces. It would be up to Iraqi government forces to thwart any plans by insurgents to resume their violence once U.S. forces begin to depart.

Responding to questions about the presence of Iranian operatives inside Iraq, Gates said he knows of no recent change in U.S. policy but stressed that American troops have the right to defend themselves against any hostile group in Iraq. (See related article.)

“If you're in Iraq and trying to kill our troops, then you should consider yourself a target,” Gates said. In particular, U.S. troops are seeking to disrupt the networks of attackers who plant roadside bombs -- known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs -- that cause 70 percent of coalition casualties in Iraq.

Gates stressed that the challenges posed by Iran’s attempts to influence Iraq “can be dealt with diplomatically.” For example, he said, the recent increase in the U.S. Navy presence in the Persian Gulf is meant not to threaten any nation but to remind governments throughout the region that the United States for decades has considered stability in the Gulf to be a vital national interest.

Gates also said he did not anticipate situations in which U.S. forces would pursue Iranians up to the border with Iran. “I don’t think there is any intention to cross the border,” he said. Nor does he expect cross-border attacks from inside Iran. “I don’t anticipate anything like that,” Gates said.

Returning from a recent trip to Afghanistan, Gates said he is “more optimistic” now than he was before his visit.

The defense secretary announced January 25 that he was extending the deployment of 3,200 U.S. troops already in Afghanistan for an additional four months so that NATO forces can “maintain the initiative” against Taliban fighters, who traditionally escalate their activities after the winter weather ends.

“What our commanders see this spring is an opportunity for us to make the spring offensive our offensive,” Gates said, “and to preempt whatever plans the Taliban may have.”

(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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