BAGHDAD, April 7, 2011 — During what he said probably is his last visit to Iraq, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates today told U.S. soldiers here that they and their predecessors have been part of an “extraordinary success story.”
Gates, who has announced plans to retire, spoke to about 175 25th Infantry Division soldiers assigned to U.S. Division Center at Camp Liberty. He arrived in Iraq yesterday for a series of meetings with military leaders and senior Iraqi government officials.
“The difference that you and those like you have made in this country is evident around you every single day. … This has been an extraordinary success story for the United States military,” he said.
The secretary noted that his first visit to Iraq was in September 2006, while he was serving as a member of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan commission Congress appointed to provide policy advice on the war.
“And when I first came here as secretary in late December 2006 and gave my first press conference in front of the [Joint Visitors Bureau], there was a firefight going on in the background,” Gates said. “And so the difference that you have made is just night and day, and I thank you for your service and your sacrifice.”
As he always does when he visits with troops, Gates fielded questions. One soldier wanted to know whether the turmoil in Libya and elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East might spread to Iraq.
“I don’t see any repercussions from Libya coming here, partly because there is such broad Arab support for what’s being done in Libya,” he replied. “I do think that the situation in Bahrain has created some stress here in Iraq because of sympathy for their fellow Shiia.”
But on a broader scale, the secretary added, the turmoil in the region shines a light on the Iraq success story.
“In a way, it’s a measure of what you and the Iraqis have achieved that Iraq is already where a lot of these other countries want to be, and that is having fair elections where anybody can run, having people from multiple sectarian groups running, and then having a pretty good democratic government with political and human rights,” Gates said.
In response to a question about the likelihood that the United States would maintain a military presence in Iraq beyond this year, Gates said that’s up to the Iraqi government.
“We are willing to have a presence beyond that time,” he said. “But we’ve got a lot of commitments around the world, … so if folks here are going to want us to have a presence, we’re going to need to get on with it pretty quickly in terms of our planning and our ability to figure out where we get the forces and what kind of forces we need here, and what specifically the mission they want us to do is.
“I think there is interest in having a continuing presence,” he added, “but the politics are such that we’ll just have to wait and see, because the initiative ultimately has to come from the Iraqis.”
The visit with the soldiers was part of a busy schedule for the secretary today. He met this morning with Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, commander of U.S. Forces Iraq and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James F. Jeffrey, and he had a working lunch with top U.S. military officers here.
Gates is scheduled to meet separately this afternoon with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq and President Jalal Talabani, and to have dinner this evening with junior service members.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)