September 16, 2008

Gates Foresees Smaller U.S. Combat Role

BAGHDAD (AP)- Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday he foresees a shrinking U.S. combat role in Iraq in coming months, while the No. 2 U.S. commander here cautioned that it would be a mistake to push the U.S.-trained Iraqi army and police into a leading security role too soon.

"I'm not sure that pushing them forward is the right thing that we want to do. We tried that once before and found that that didn't work," Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin told reporters, referring to the pre- 2007 U.S. strategy, which focused on handing off security responsibility to the Iraqis fast while reducing the U.S. presence. That approach faltered, leaving Iraq on the brink of all-out civil war before President Bush switched strategies and put Gen. David Petraeus in charge in Baghdad.

Austin said key measures of insurgent violence today are about 80 percent lower than one year ago.

Petraeus is scheduled to hand off today to his successor, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno. Odierno, who served for 15 months as the No. 2 U.S. commander here before leaving last February, will be promoted to four-star rank at a separate ceremony prior to the formal change- of-command ceremony.

Gates, who planned to preside at the change-of-command ceremony, told reporters traveling with him on an overnight flight from Washington that conditions have improved enough to permit a continuation of the process of handing off responsibility to the Iraqi security forces. Last week, he told Congress that the war was now in the "endgame," with U.S. forces drawing back to a secondary role.

A suicide bomber blew herself up Monday among police officers who were celebrating the release of a comrade from U.S. custody, killing at least 22 people, Iraqi officials said. The attack took place in Diyala, a province northeast of Baghdad. Separate bombings in Iraq killed 13 other people.

Although no additional U.S. combat brigades are to withdraw from Iraq this year, under a plan announced by Bush last week, Gates told reporters that he expects the U.S. combat role to keep shrinking. Pentagon commanders say they need more forces in Afghanistan, where fighting has worsened.

"We are clearly in a mission transition," he said.

(c) 2008 Bismarck Tribune. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.