Washington (AFP) March 1, 2009
Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Sunday touted military "success" in Iraq and said it was unlikely that conditions would force a change in plans to withdraw most US troops within 18 months.
Asked if the United States will have achieved victory when it pulls out of Iraq, Gates said "we have had a significant success (on) the military side," while acknowledging "the political side is still a work in progress in Iraq."
"Frankly, I think before you start using terms like 'won' or 'lost' or 'victory' or 'defeat,' those are the kinds of things that I think historians have to judge," he told NBC's "Meet the Press."
President Barack Obama on Friday ordered an end to US combat operations in Iraq by August 31, 2010, saying a force of 35,000-50,000 would remain through 2011 -- down from the current 142,000-strong force.
The residual force would stay in Iraq under a new mission until the end of 2011, when all US troops are required to leave under an agreement between Baghdad and Washington.
The US defense chief said he did not expect the scheduled drawdown to change.
"I would characterize the likelihood of significant adjustments to this plan as fairly remote," said Gates.
The president "retains the flexibility and the authority to change a plan or adjust it if he thinks it's in the national security of the United States," he said.
"The fact is, I don't think any of us believe that that will be necessary."
Top military officer Admiral Mike Mullen also praised the plan, saying it reflected the advice of military commanders.
"I am very comfortable with the decision and strongly support the decision," Mullen told CNN's "State of the Union.
"And the president listened to all of us who were involved in this -- General (Ray) Odierno on the ground in Iraq, General (David) Petraeus, who is responsible for the Central Command area, as well as all the joint chiefs, myself and Secretary Gates," he said.
He added that "all the trends continue to move in the right directions" in Iraq.
Obama's announcement for withdrawal met a campaign pledge to pull troops out of a conflict that has killed over 4,250 Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis.
Gates said the president's decision on the interim force, which drew criticism from some Democratic lawmakers, was the result of careful deliberations.
"I don't think it was a concession (to commanders).
"I think that there was a lot of analysis of the risks that were involved. I think that if the commanders had had complete say in this matter that they would've preferred that the combat mission not end until the end of 2010," he said.
So "it was really a dialogue between the commanders in the field, the joint chiefs here myself, the chairman and the president, in terms of how you mitigate risk and how you structure this going forward," Gates said.
"Having a somewhat larger residual, or transition, force, mitigates the risk of having the combat units go out sooner," he said.
Gates acknowledged that there were still ethnic tensions in the northern city of Mosul and major political challenges ahead in Iraq.
"Mosul is a problem. The Arab/Kurd tensions are a problem. The need to get an oil law is a problem. So, there are problems," he said.
"We have the concerns associated with a national election at the end of this year as one of the reasons why Odierno wanted to keep those troops there as long as possible. Or a significant number of troops."
While "there has been real progress on the political side ... there is clearly unfinished business in that arena, as well."
The withdrawal target Obama set out is slightly slower than his promise to remove all US combat troops from Iraq within 16 months from his inauguration in January.
The transitional force will take on a new mission of training, equipping and advising Iraqi security forces, to protect US civilian personnel in Iraq, and to carry out counter-terrorism operations on its own and with Iraqi forces, Obama said.
Officials have refused to definitively rule out changes to the status of forces agreement, agreed with Iraq by the former Bush administration, that could entail US troops remaining beyond 2011.
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