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American Forces Press Service

Gates, Middle Eastern Leaders' Discussions Highlight Concerns Over Iran

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

MANAMA, Bahrain, Jan. 18, 2007 – Iran is mistaken in believing it has the United States at a disadvantage, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today.

Gates spoke to reporters traveling with him after briefings at U.S. Naval Forces Central Command here and at U.S Central Command Air Forces, in Qatar. He also met with Qatar’s emir and defense minister, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

Gates said the discussions he had with the Qatari leader and with Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, yesterday were wide-ranging and detailed. He briefed both leaders on the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Both made it clear that they hope to see us succeed,” he said.

The situation with Iran worries both leaders, Gates said. “I told them that I felt the Iranians were being very aggressive,” he said. “I believe (the Iranians) feel they have the United States at a disadvantage because of the situation in Iraq. To be precise, I told them both that I thought the Iranians were overplaying their hands. One of the consequences of that is they have raised real concerns about their intentions in the region and beyond.”

Iran is actively training Shiite insurgents and helping them infiltrate into Iraq officials traveling with the secretary said. Iran also is providing advanced weapons -- such as “explosively formed projectiles” -- that are killing and wounding coalition servicemembers in Iraq and innocent Iraqi civilians, they said, adding that Iran is seeking to become the premier regional power in the Middle East and Central Asia.

“I think that our difficulties in Iraq have given (the Iranians) a tactical opportunity in the short term, but the United States is a very powerful country,” Gates said.

Still, that does not mean the United States is contemplating a military option, he said. “Nobody wants another conflict in this region,” the secretary said.

In Bahrain, Gates met with Navy Vice Adm. Patrick M. Walsh, the commander of 5th Fleet and U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. In Qatar, he met with U.S. Central Command commander Army Gen. John Abizaid and Air Force Lt. Gen. Gary L. North, commander of 9th Air Force and U.S. Central Command Air Forces. He said the briefings gave him “a better understanding of the roles of the Navy and Air Force in carrying out operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan and in the region as a whole.”

“It’s pretty clear that their roles, together with our ground forces, ensure that we cannot be defeated militarily,” Gates said.

Gates also addressed U.S. concerns that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has not issued a ringing endorsement of the new strategy to secure Baghdad. He said he believes Maliki wishes he could conduct the pacification operations without U.S. assistance. “He wants to take the lead; he wants to do it on his own; he wants to show his government can deliver,” Gates said.

Iraqi military and security advisors were the ones who told Maliki that they needed American help to accomplish the plan. “I think he wishes that weren’t so,” Gates said. “It really doesn’t surprise me that he hasn’t embraced this fully. I think he is going into this wishing that Iraqis could do it on their own.”

Gates said the countries of the Arabian Gulf region are concerned about the situation in Iraq and the level of violence in the country. He said there is clearly a concern in the region about whether Maliki’s government would deliver on its commitments. “Quite frankly, these are reservations that have been expressed in Washington,” Gates said. “We will be watching.”

Finally, Gates thanked the men and women of the American military who are serving in the region. He has visited troops in Afghanistan, Bahrain and Qatar, and said he is impressed with their professionalism and attitudes.

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