Defense secretary briefs Bush on Iraq

STRESS: The White House is under intense political pressure for an overhaul of US Iraq policy, following the rout of the Republican Party in congressional elections last month


Mon, Dec 25, 2006 - Page 7

New US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, just back from a trip to Iraq, met with US President George W. Bush on Saturday, who left open all policy options, the White House said.

Gates was to report to Bush on his talks with Iraqi leaders, in which he discussed ways to step up US assistance to secure violence-torn Baghdad.

"The president is leaving all options on the table on the way forward," Blain Rethmeier, a White House spokesman, said in a brief statement.

Joining Bush and Gates in the meeting at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland, outside Washington, were Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and Hadley's deputy Jack Crouch, Rethmeier said.

The White House offered no further details on the talks.

Gates traveled to Iraq with General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Other State Department and National Security Council officials also accompanied the new secretary, who took office on Monday, replacing embattled secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Gates's briefing comes as the Bush administration is plotting some change in Iraq policy, expected to be announced next month.

Bush is under intense political pressure for an overhaul of his Iraq policy, following the rout of the Republican Party in congressional elections, rock-bottom public approval of his management of the Iraq war and mounting US combat deaths.

Returning late on Friday from a three-day visit to Iraq in his first week as defense secretary, Gates gave no clear indication earlier 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 specifics of a plan to help re-establish security in the capital with Iraqis in the lead and US forces in a supporting role.

Gates had 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.

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 devoted to teaming up US troops 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.

Gates said he had 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.

It hopes to position US combat forces on the approaches to the city to keep out suicide bombers and insurgents.

Also see story:
Robert Gates is very much his own man as defense secretary