Gates Sees Iran as a Consideration for U.S. Troops in Iraq
By Elisabeth Bumiller
The New York Times
May 24, 2011
WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said on Tuesday that if some American troops remained in Iraq beyond the scheduled withdrawal of all United States forces by the end of the year, it would be reassuring to Persian Gulf countries, but not to Iran. “And that’s a good thing,” Mr. Gates said.
The defense secretary said that while Iraqi politicians loyal to the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr clearly wanted the Americans to leave, it was debatable “how much of that is the Sadrists and how much of that is the Iranians behind the Sadrists.”
The Sadrists, who the United States says are closely allied with Iran, have long insisted that all American forces must be out of Iraq by the end of December, the deadline agreed to by Iraq and the United States.
Mr. Gates, who is to retire at the end of next month, made his comments at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research institution, in a question-and-answer session after delivering formal remarks on the defense budget. He described it as “my last major policy speech in Washington.”
Although Mr. Gates and other American officials had held out the possibility that some United States forces could stay in Iraq beyond the end of the year, the defense secretary had never before cited Iran as a factor in the Obama administration’s thinking. Mr. Gates’s remarks coincided with the release of a report on Tuesday by Frederick W. Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, which said Iran’s use of military proxy groups poses the most serious threat to Iraq’s security.
There are about 45,000 American troops in Iraq. United States commanders say that although violence is down, Iraq cannot yet defend its airspace, gather adequate intelligence or properly manage logistics.
Keeping American troops in Iraq would have political repercussions in both Washington and Baghdad. President Obama campaigned in 2008 on a platform of pulling all American forces out of Iraq, and breaking that promise is likely to antagonize his supporters on the left.
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq is facing political pressure from Mr. Sadr and his loyalists, who are among Mr. Maliki’s most important allies.
This month, however, Mr. Maliki said he would meet with Iraqi leaders to discuss whether American forces should remain beyond the end of the year.
If a majority of Iraqi lawmakers and political leaders support the idea, Mr. Maliki said, he would be open to asking some American forces to stay. And he told Mr. Sadr’s supporters that they would have to accept the majority’s decision.
In his comments in Washington, Mr. Gates said he would not have predicted five months ago, before the uprisings in the Arab world, that “Iraq would emerge as the most advanced Arab democracy in the entire region.” He said that “as messy as it is,” the Iraqis “weren’t in the streets shooting each other, the government wasn’t in the streets shooting its people.”
Blog editor's note: Gates' final comment ignores the recent series of bomb explosions in Kirkuk and Baghdad that killed scores of civilians and police officers.