Sun, Dec 24, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Gates ready to brief Bush

THE IRAQ QUESTION The US defense secretary was due to meet with George W. Bush at Camp David yesterday, but gave no clue as to his proposals on the troops in Iraq

AFP , WASHINGTON

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates was yesterday due to report to President George W. Bush on his talks with Iraqi leaders, during which he was to discuss ways to step up US assistance to secure violence-torn Baghdad.

The White House said Gates would brief Bush at the presidential retreat in Camp David, Maryland.

Joining them in the meeting were to be Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser Stephen Hadley and Hadley's deputy Jack Crouch, said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.

Returning from a swift three-day visit to Iraq in his first week in the post, Gates gave no clear indication whether more US troops would be deployed to Iraq and, if so, how they might be used.

But he left the top US commander in Iraq, General George Casey, with instructions to work out the specifics of a plan to help re-establish security in the capital with Iraqis in the lead and US forces in a supporting role.

"We have a broad strategic agreement between the Iraqi military, the Iraqi government and our military," Gates told reporters.

"Clearly there are more discussions that need to take place in Washington and more specific recommendations," he said.

Gates returned to Washington late on Friday.

The new defense chief discussed with his commanders the possibility of a surge in the size of the 140,000-strong US force in Iraq, and what it might accomplish, but sidestepped questions about what either he or his generals thought about the idea.

Casey said he was not opposed to a surge but that any increase should be tailored to further US strategic objectives.

The US television network CNN reported that plans call for deploying as many as five additional US combat brigades. A senior US defense official said the report was "way off."

A key question is whether additional troops would play a combat role to tamp down the violence or be embedded as advisers to Iraqi units to accelerate their training.

Gates heard enlisted soldiers from three combat divisions say more US troops were needed in combat roles for the time being because Iraqi units needed to mature. Some said many Iraqis did not show up for work.

But troops with a 400-strong US task force assigned to train and advise an Iraqi brigade in a hotspot just south of Baghdad told Gates more effort should be put in teaming up US forces with Iraqi units.

The task force, regarded as a model for an accelerated training effort, has a company-size unit embedded with each of the Iraqi brigade's battalions, allowing them to work with smaller, company-sized Iraqi units.

A task-force leader, Lieutenant Colonel Bob Morschauser, said they hoped the Iraqi brigade would be able to operate on its own in less than a year.

"The big thing is confidence. They are gaining confidence rapidly," Morschauser told reporters after meeting with Gates.

Gates said he discussed US assistance but not troop numbers with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Maliki's government has proposed a plan of its own to transfer security responsibilities in Baghdad to the Iraqis while positioning US combat forces on the approaches to the city to keep out suicide bombers and insurgents.

A Pentagon report, however, pointed to Shiite militias, and particularly radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, as the chief cause of a wave of sectarian killings in Baghdad.

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