Gates warns of U.S. impatience

Defense secretary carries message for Iraqi leaders

April 20, 2007|By Julian E. Barnes | Julian E. Barnes,LOS ANGELES TIMES

FALLUJAH, Iraq -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived in Iraq yesterday with a message that U.S. patience with the slow pace of political reconciliation measures is limited.

Gates is expected to meet today with government and sectarian leaders in Baghdad, to urge progress on laws designed to ease tensions among the groups and divvy up government revenues and oil wealth.

Those compromises are among the benchmarks the Bush administration has said will need to be met before U.S. troops can be withdrawn.

"I am sympathetic to some of the challenges they face, but by the same token ... the clock is ticking," Gates said before departing Israel for Iraq.

A day after one of the deadliest assaults in Baghdad, a car bomb killed 11 people in the capital yesterday and wounded 30. The latest attack, in the Jadiriya neighborhood, appeared to have targeted an Interior Ministry bunker.

The U.S. military reported the deaths of three American soldiers. Two soldiers were killed and another wounded Wednesday after their vehicle struck an improvised explosive device north of Baghdad. Another soldier was shot and killed in Baghdad, the military said.

Gates met in Fallujah with Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. Both men later went to Baghdad.

Petraeus said there was no doubt that the string of sectarian bombings Wednesday in Baghdad constituted a setback for the U.S.-Iraq security plan announced in February.

"There is no two ways about it," he said. "A day like that can have a real psychological impact."

The U.S. troop buildup, Petraeus said, was starting to show some progress, including a decline in Shiite reprisal killings in Baghdad.

Since the security crackdown began Feb. 13, radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has bridled his Mahdi Army militia, thought to be the culprits of most of the reprisal killings. Al-Sadr also has dropped from public sight, though he reasserted his influence this week by ordering his loyalists to quit the Cabinet of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite whose support partly rested on al-Sadr's followers.

Petraeus repeated U.S. assertions that it will take time to see the effects of the troop escalation. "This is about months, not days, not weeks," Petraeus said. "It will be about mid-June when all of the forces are in place."

Three of the five brigades that have been ordered to deploy in Baghdad are in place.

Though Gates said yesterday that the duration of the troop increase would depend on the situation on the ground, he repeated his contention that the debate in Congress over the U.S. presence in Iraq has sent a clear message to the Iraqi government that it must move quickly.

"One of the ancillary benefits of the debate on the Hill is that the Iraqis have to know that this is not an open-ended commitment," Gates said. "The president has said our patience is not unlimited. I don't think we have been very subtle at communicating these messages to the Iraqis."

The U.S. strategy aims to bolster security in Baghdad to give Iraqi forces time to grow more effective and give the government time to make the compromises needed to ease sectarian divisions.

"What we are trying to do is help the Iraqis improve the security situation, to provide a window of opportunity in time and space that will allow Iraqi leaders to resolve some of these tough issues that are out there confronting them," Petraeus said.

Petraeus said he agrees with Gates' view that the reconciliation process must be sped up. That process includes holding provincial elections, devising a formula to share Iraq's oil wealth, distributing money to provincial governments and modifying a law that prohibits Sunnis with ties to dictator Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from holding public-sector jobs or receiving government pensions.

For more than a year, U.S. officials have been saying that passage of the laws was imminent, but the Iraqi parliament has failed to act.

Passage of the legislation, Gates said, would not immediately put an end to the fighting but would help change the environment of suspicion that contributes to the violence.

Julian E. Barnes writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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