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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

18 April 2007

U.S. Defense Secretary Optimistic on Iraq Neighbors Conference

Gates terms congressional debate on U.S. troop commitment "helpful"

Washington -- Traveling in the Middle East, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates thanked Egypt for agreeing to host a major meeting of Iraq’s neighbors; in Jordan, he said the U.S. congressional debate on troops in Iraq has had a positive effect by showing the Baghdad government that the U.S. military commitment is not open-ended.

Speaking to reporters April 18 in Cairo, Egypt, Gates said he met with Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, for “wide-ranging talks” that included the need for regional powers to support and strengthen the unity government of Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Gates said he expressed appreciation to Mubarak for his willingness to host a conference of Iraq’s neighbors in early May in Sharm el-Sheikh on the Red Sea.

The Maliki government has invited 21 countries and international organizations to attend the May 3-4 conference, including Iraq’s neighbors, as well as other parties with a stake in rebuilding Iraq, such as the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

In Amman, Jordan, on April 17, Gates also discussed support for Iraq’s government with King Abdullah II. “We talked about the value of the neighbors reaching out to the Maliki government,” Gates told reporters.

“I think it is not yet the confidence of the region that Iraq’s government represents all Iraq,” Gates said. “My own view is that they’re working hard in that direction.” He added that “more encouragement” from neighbors “would be a positive contribution.”

SYRIA CAN PLAY CONSTRUCTIVE ROLE, U.S. COMMANDER SAYS

Admiral William Fallon, the new chief of U.S. Central Command, said April 18 that the Sharm el-Sheikh conference also will be an opportunity to focus regional assistance for Iraq. Fallon, who took charge of Central Command in March, testified before the House Armed Services Committee.

Fallon said recent intelligence reports indicate some progress has been made in stemming the flow of foreign fighters from Syria into Iraq, and he said the Sharm el-Sheikh conference would be noteworthy because of its inclusion of countries such as Syria.

At Sharm el-Sheikh, “We can, along with others, encourage Syria and other neighbors to be playing a constructive role in the development of Iraq and the security situation there,” Fallon said.

“I think that to date there's been very little in the way of assistance given by countries, and, in fact, in the case of Syria, certainly negative assistance to help the situation,” Fallon said. “But I'd like to see a collective effort made by regional leaders to agree to cooperate to help the situation.”

Helping create a stable Iraq is in the best interests of neighboring nations because “in the long term an unstable, insecure, chaotic Iraq is just going to be a real problem for every one of them,” Fallon said. “So I think that if nothing else, their own self-interest would take note of the fact that they ought to be doing more.”

CONGRESSIONAL DEBATE SHOWS LIMITS TO U.S. PATIENCE

Gates, at his news conference in Jordan, was asked about the effect of debate between the U.S. Congress and President Bush on the funding and duration of U.S. military involvement in Iraq.

“The debate in Congress, I think, has been helpful in demonstrating to the Iraqis that American patience is limited,” Gates said. “That said, I’ve been pretty clear that I think the enactment of specific deadlines and timetables would be a bad mistake. But I think the debate itself – and I think that the strong feelings expressed in the Congress about the timetable – probably has had a positive impact.”

Gates said that he hopes Iraqi leaders now understand that American military support “is not an open-ended commitment.”

President Bush said April 16 that he considers it “normal” and “healthy” in a democracy that the Congress should disagree with the president on the best course of action in Iraq.  However, he also asked Congress not to mandate troop withdrawal deadlines. (See related article.)

Transcripts of Gates’ comments in Jordan and Egypt are available on the Defense Department Web site.

For more information, see Iraq Update.

(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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