Gates: War in Iraq Over, U.S. Transitioning to Iraqi Forces

RAMADI, Iraq, Sept. 1, 2010 — The war in Iraq is over and the Unit­ed States is enter­ing the final phase of the U.S. engage­ment in Iraq, Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates said here today.

U.S. com­bat oper­a­tions have ceased, the sec­re­tary said. Amer­i­can forces are still par­tic­i­pat­ing in some coun­terin­sur­gency oper­a­tions with the Iraqis, and they are train­ing and advis­ing and assist­ing Iraqi forces, but the Unit­ed States is not at war in Iraq.

Gates said a lot has changed in Iraq since he took office in Decem­ber 2006. Then Iraq was in des­per­ate straits. Eth­nic vio­lence – encour­aged by al-Qai­da in Iraq – threat­ened to tear the coun­try apart. Sun­ni and Shia Arabs were at each other’s throats and both groups dis­trust­ed the Kurds. Insur­gents were plant­i­ng road­side bombs and dri­ving car bombs into Iraqi and coali­tion forces.

In those dark days came the deci­sion to surge 30,000 more Amer­i­can troops into the coun­try to take and hold areas until Iraqi secu­ri­ty forces could take their place.

It worked, but Amer­i­can ser­vice­mem­bers paid a ter­ri­ble price. Since the inva­sion in 2003, a total of 4,427 Amer­i­can ser­vice­mem­bers have died in Iraq. Some 34,268 have been wound­ed. Hun­dreds of thou­sands have served in Iraq – often repeat­ed­ly.

Reporters asked Gates if that sac­ri­fice was worth it. “If Iraq ends up a demo­c­ra­t­ic coun­try that is a con­struc­tive par­tic­i­pant in inter­na­tion­al life … then I think look­ing back the poten­tial for it being the core of sig­nif­i­cant change in this region as a demo­c­ra­t­ic state is hard to under­es­ti­mate,” he said. “Our men and women in uni­form believe we have accom­plished some­thing that makes the sac­ri­fice and the blood­shed not to have been in vain. Our men and women have accom­plished some­thing real­ly quite extra­or­di­nary.”

The sec­re­tary is opti­mistic about the future of the coun­try. He said that “pol­i­tics has bro­ken out here,” with oppos­ing sides talk­ing about form­ing a gov­ern­ment rather than shoot­ing at each oth­er. “The efforts of al-Qai­da to reignite eth­nic vio­lence that we saw in 2006 and 2007 have not been suc­cess­ful,” he said. “I’m opti­mistic that these guys will form a coali­tion gov­ern­ment and con­tin­ue to make progress. This is going to be a work in progress for a long time. This is a new thing in the sev­er­al thou­sand year his­to­ry of Iraq, and it’s a pret­ty new thing in this region of the world.”

Gates gave two exam­ples of the changes he has seen just since arriv­ing in Iraq this morn­ing. The first is how emp­ty it was at al Asad Air Base, where he land­ed. At one time, the base housed 22,000 Marines and sol­diers.

The oth­er exam­ple was reflect­ed in the ques­tions from the sol­diers of the 3rd Infantry Division’s 4th Brigade Com­bat Team. Gates vis­it­ed the sol­diers here and held a ques­tion and answer ses­sion with them. The sol­diers of the advise and assist brigade “did not ask ques­tions about secu­ri­ty or issues relat­ing to Iraq so much as they were about their own sit­u­a­tions and plans going for­ward,” Gates said.

There will con­tin­ue to be tough times in Iraq for the 50,000 Amer­i­can troops that remain to advise and assist Iraqi secu­ri­ty forces. He told the sol­diers, for exam­ple, that he would not favor stop­ping the spe­cial pays they receive for their ser­vice here.

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

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