In Iraq, Gates urges reconciliation laws

Defense chief links easing of tensions to U.S. troop levels

April 21, 2007|By Julian E. Barnes | Julian E. Barnes,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD -- In the latest warning from Washington that America's patience is wearing thin, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told Iraqi government officials yesterday that they need to pass legislation aimed at easing sectarian tension before the U.S. military conducts a formal evaluation of its current troop increase in Iraq this summer.

Gates stopped short of announcing an outright deadline, but he used some of his most forthright language to date to make clear to the Iraqi government that American soldiers would not remain on Baghdad streets indefinitely. "Our commitment to Iraq is long-term, but it is not a commitment to have our young men and women patrolling Iraq's streets open-endedly," Gates said.

Meeting with Iraqi leaders including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the defense secretary said that he does not want the Iraqi parliament to take its summer recess, currently scheduled for July and August, unless it first acts on a series of reconciliation laws including measures to share the country's oil wealth and allow provincial elections.

The Bush administration is hoping that political and economic agreements between the Shiite-led government, its Kurdish allies and the minority Sunni population will help to tamp down sectarian violence on Baghdad's streets and beyond.

Officials including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and even President Bush have warned of growing impatience with the status quo. "I constantly signal to the Iraqi leaders that our patience, or the patience of the American people, is running out," said Khalilzad in late March.

Nevertheless, Iraqi politicians have made little progress on key benchmarks for progress, including the oil issue and initiatives to allow Sunnis who had worked in Saddam Hussein's government to return to government jobs.

Despite the pressure from Gates, there is broad skepticism among many midlevel American officers in Iraq that the two sides are ready to compromise. A midlevel military officer in Iraq said it will be difficult to establish real security in Baghdad until the Shiite and Sunni factions tire of fighting each other and have a realistic sense of their demographic and military power.

"I don't know whether these guys are ready to quit," the officer said. "It is a critical question."

Gates said yesterday that he and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, will evaluate the effectiveness of the administration's troop surge strategy in Baghdad this summer before deciding whether it should continue. In a joint news conference with Iraqi Defense Minister Abdel Qader Jassim Mohammed after his meetings, Gates said that besides the summer evaluation, there was no further discussion of timelines with Iraqi leaders.

Gates said he told al-Maliki and others that the evaluation "would be enhanced by the reconciliation legislation."

Timetables and benchmarks have been at the forefront of political debate in Washington. Democrats want to set a deadline for troops to begin to be withdrawn from Iraq. Bush has said repeatedly that he will not sign any legislation that sets a date for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Although Gates has not contradicted Bush, he heavily emphasized during his two days in Iraq that the Iraqis elected to run the country after the U.S.-led 2003 invasion, must move quickly to quell the violence.

"We will see where the situation is at the end of the summer where General Petraeus and I have repeatedly said we will be making at least a preliminary evaluation where things stand with the Baghdad security plan, the surge and reconciliation," Gates said.

Some military officers have said that even if the Pentagon has not issued an explicit timeline, they believe there is an unspoken one, considering Gates' call for an evaluation of the surge this summer and next winter's presidential primaries.

"We have an implied time line," the midlevel officer in Baghdad said. "Our presidential election is driving this, and I think the Iraqis understand that."

The officer spoke on the condition of anonymity because the issue of timelines has become heavily politicized.

While the Bush administration has portrayed the military as dead set against imposing a timeline for progress in Iraq, in reality the views of many officers are more complicated. Some say that an explicit timeline could serve to prod the Iraqi government to make compromises to placate the Sunni minority. Others worry that a timeline works only with a government broadly accepted by the population.

Julian E. Barnes writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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