FORWARD OPERATING BASE FALCON, Iraq — In a clear sign the drawdown of U.S. forces from Iraq will be suspended, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday he favors taking time this summer to assess security gains before more troops leave the country, an idea President Bush is expected to support.
It was Gates' first public endorsement of a possible suspension, and it would seem to mark an end to the Pentagon chief's previously stated hope that conditions in Iraq would permit American troops to withdraw in the second half of this year as rapidly as they are leaving now.
"A brief period of consolidation and evaluation probably does make sense," Gates told reporters during a short stop at this U.S. base in southern Baghdad. He had just finished private meetings with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and the No. 2 commander, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno.
Gates did not say how long the pause might last, noting that it ultimately would be a decision for the president.
In separate remarks, Gates described al-Qaida in Iraq, the insurgent group that U.S. officials say is led by a small number of foreign fighters with links to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, as having been "routed." That is an unusually strong characterization by Gates of the damage done to al-Qaida, which has been largely pushed out of Baghdad but is still seen by U.S. commanders as a serious threat.
Petraeus and Odierno both have said publicly in recent weeks that they would like to see a "period of assessment" after July in order to get a clearer indication of how troop cuts by then are working. Neither has said for how long.
The logic of a pause, perhaps through September and possibly longer, rests on the fact that the current schedule for troop reductions through July leaves open the possibility that as the Americans leave in increasingly big numbers, security gains _ described by Gates Monday as "fragile" _ may be eroded or lost.
Security has improved markedly since last summer, when the last of five Army brigades arrived in Iraq, adding 30,000 troops to reinforce the military strategy of protecting the Iraqi population and undercutting the viability of the insurgency. After reaching a strength of 20 brigades in late June, the first of the five extra brigades went home in December without being replaced, and four more are scheduled to leave by July. That would leave about 130,000 or so U.S. troops in Iraq next summer, according to current planning.
Gates stressed that a decision to suspend after July would be Bush's to make after he hears from Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker in April, when the top U.S. officials in Baghdad are expected to return to Washington to report to Congress on how the war-fighting strategy is working and how to proceed on troop cuts.
Petraeus apparently feels that because the bulk of currently scheduled troop cuts are to happen in the relatively short span between April and July, it will take a period after that _ likely months rather than weeks _ to understand how the cuts affect conditions on the ground, including the strength of the insurgency.
In his remarks to reporters Monday, Gates said he had been leaning toward Petraeus' view recently, although in his public remarks as recently as last month he said he hoped that the drawdown in the second half of the year could proceed at the same pace as the first half. That would translate to a reduction from 15 brigades in July to 10 by the end of the year, leaving perhaps 100,000 troops there when Bush leaves office in January.
"In my own thinking I had been kind of headed in that direction, as well," Gates said. "But one of the keys is how long is that period, and then what happens after that." He said those were questions for Bush.
Moments after Gates finished speaking with reporters at Forward Operating Base Falcon, in an area of southern Baghdad that saw some of the worst violence last year, an alarm sounded with a repeated warning of incoming fire. No impacts were heard and Gates and his entourage left safely a short time later, on schedule.
Gates' Iraq visit may have been his last before Petraeus and Crocker come to Washington to deliver their recommendations.
After attending a private dinner Sunday evening with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other senior Iraqi government officials to urge more progress toward national reconciliation, Gates presented a Defense Distinguished Service Medal on Odierno at a ceremony Monday morning at Odierno's headquarters.
Gates called Odierno "one of the most effective military leaders of his generation." Odierno, who spent 15 months as the senior day-to-day commander of American troops in Iraq, has been nominated for promotion to four-star rank and assignment as vice chief of staff of the Army.
Gates recalled the rampant violence in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad, at the outset of Odierno's tour.
"Those early months were tough times," Gates said. "Casualties were high. There were questions in the United States and around the world whether this new strategy _ or any strategy, for that matter _ would be able to make a real difference.
"What a difference you made, and much more _ al-Qaida routed, insurgents co-opted, levels of violence of all kinds dramatically reduced," he said. "The situation in Iraq continues to be fragile, but the Iraqi people now have an opportunity to forge a better, more secure, more prosperous future."