September 15, 2008

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates made a surprise visit to Iraq on Monday, saying the new US commander will face a challenge as the US force shrinks and turns over more of the country to Iraqis.

But within minutes of his arrival, two car bombings in Baghdad killed at least 12 people and wounded 32 others, security officials said.

His eighth trip to Iraq as defence secretary comes as Washington and Baghdad negotiate a controversial security pact to govern the presence of US-led troops when a UN mandate expires at the end of the year.

General David Petraeus, the head of US-led forces who is credited with curbing violence in Iraq, is to hand over command to his former deputy General Raymond Odierno on Tuesday.

“We are clearly on a mission in transition,” Gates told reporters on the flight to Baghdad.

With levels of violence down to around four-year lows after an 18-month “surge” in US forces, President George W. Bush last week announced plans to send 8,000 troops home by January.

“There is no question we will still be engaged as we are, but the areas in which we are seriously engaged will I think continue to narrow,” Gates said.

“And the challenge for General Odierno is how do we work with the Iraqis to preserve the gains that have already been achieved, and expand upon them even as the number of US forces are shrinking.”

Responsibility for security of 11 of Iraq’s 18 provinces has already been turned over to Iraqis and Gates said a couple more would probably join them by the end of the year.

“So it’s a transition from a focus on the surge brigades and the surge strategy to more Iraqi units in the lead, and us in more of an overwatch role,” he said.

Iraq was spiralling into all-out civil war when Petraeus took over as commander in February 2007, almost four years after the invasion that toppled executed dictator Saddam Hussein.

Gates credited Petraeus’s “brilliant strategy” and its implementation by US troops and field commanders for the success of the surge.

“I think he’s played a historic role. There is just no two ways about it,” he said.

Odierno, an early proponent of the surge, implemented it as the corps commander in Iraq from December 2006 to March 2008, which Gates said made him the right person to replace Petraeus.

Gates said Iraqis still must press ahead with political reconciliation, improve delivery of government services, and prevent a comeback by Al-Qaeda or “special groups” allegedly linked to radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s militia.

But he said the US troops cuts announced by Bush, which will still leave more troops in Iraq than before the surge, were an acceptable risk.


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