Gates: Iraq Has Chance Now, Thanks to U.S. Servicemembers

MILWAUKEE , Aug. 31, 2010 — It is thanks to the blood, sweat and tears of Amer­i­can ser­vice­mem­bers that Iraq has the chance for polit­i­cal free­dom, Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates told the annu­al con­ven­tion of the Amer­i­can Legion here today.

The sec­re­tary cau­tioned that much remains to be done in Iraq, but the peo­ple have the chance to move for­ward after 30 years of Sad­dam Hussein’s oppres­sion.

Gates ticked off the major signs of progress. Despite recent al-Qai­da attacks on Iraqi civil­ians the over­all lev­el of vio­lence in the coun­try remains at the low­est lev­el since 2003. U.S. Forces Iraq has not launched an airstrike in more than six months.

“In an impor­tant vic­to­ry against transna­tion­al ter­ror, al-Qai­da in Iraq has been large­ly cut from its mas­ters abroad,” he said.

Today marks the last day of Oper­a­tion Iraqi Free­dom; the 50,000 Amer­i­can troops that remain in Iraq will now oper­ate under Oper­a­tion New Dawn. U.S. ser­vice­mem­bers will con­tin­ue to advise and assist Iraqi secu­ri­ty forces – now 660,000-strong – until all Amer­i­can troops leave Iraq at the end of next year. Since the height of the surge, about 84,000 Amer­i­can troops have rede­ployed out of the coun­try.

The sec­re­tary is a real­ist about Iraq. “I am not say­ing that all is, or nec­es­sar­i­ly will be, well in Iraq,” he told the Legion­naires. “The most recent elec­tions have yet to result in a coali­tion gov­ern­ment. Sec­tar­i­an ten­sions remain a fact of life. Al-Qai­da in Iraq is beat­en, but not gone.”

Amer­i­cans should not cel­e­brate pre­ma­ture­ly, and no one should become com­pla­cent. “We still have a job to do and respon­si­bil­i­ties there,” Gates said.

The sec­re­tary asked the Legion­naires to remem­ber the sac­ri­fices ser­vice­mem­bers have made. “Today, at the end of Oper­a­tion Iraqi Free­dom, 4,427 Amer­i­can ser­vice­mem­bers have died in Iraq – 3,502 of them killed in action; 34,268 have been wound­ed or injured,” he said. “The courage of these men and women, their deter­mi­na­tion, their sac­ri­fice – and that of their fam­i­lies – along with the ser­vice and sac­ri­fice of so many oth­ers in uni­form, have made this day – this tran­si­tion – pos­si­ble.

“We must nev­er for­get,” he said.

Gates said the Amer­i­can Legion has been at the fore­front of efforts to remem­ber the troops and aid­ing those affect­ed by the wars. He praised in par­tic­u­lar the Legion’s Heroes to Home­towns pro­gram. The pro­gram aims to help wound­ed ser­vice­mem­bers ease back into civil­ian life.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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