US Defense Secretary evaluates Iraq and the political climate

Friday, April 6, 2007

Robert Gates official photo.

U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates warned that limiting funding for the United States efforts in Iraq could lead to more bloodshed in the Middle Eastern country. In an interview with radio talk show host Laura Ingraham, he said it might even lead to ethnic cleansing in Bahgdad and elsewhere in Iraq.

Gates' comment followed a proposal from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to end most spending on the Iraq war in 2008, limiting it to targeted operations against al Qaeda, training for Iraqi troops and U.S. force protection.

Sec. Gates also said that the duration of the troop increase is not clear and that evaluating whether the Administration's new strategy was working will have to wait till mid-summer. The Army general charged with day-to-day operations has suggested that the increased deployment may extend to early next year.

Congressional funding

Gates discussed the military’s need for funding to finance the war effort. He said he is concerned about delays in enacting an emergency supplemental bill. Each house of Congress has passed a version of the bill, and both versions contain a time line for U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. The House version sets benchmarks of progress to be met by the Iraqi government. President Bush has vowed to veto any bill containing the withdrawal language.

Gates said each of the armed services will be affected by a delay, with the Army being the worst off. The service may be forced to suspend training for deploying forces, repairing equipment and putting in place a civilian hiring freeze. The secretary said a threatened complete cut-off of war "would be dramatic."

  One real possibility is, if we abandon some of these areas and withdraw into the countryside or whatever to do these targeted missions, that you could have a fairly significant ethnic cleansing inside Baghdad or in Iraq more broadly  

Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense

The Bush administration presents congress with war funding requests as emergency supplementals, not as part of the Pentagon's budget, a practice that began as costs were difficult to estimate during the start of the war. On October 10 of last year, Lt. Gen. David Melcher, deputy chief of staff for Army programming, material integration and management, told reporters that costs were now predictable enough to be included in the Pentagon budget proposals. The Bush administration, however, continues with the use of emergency supplementals. The supplemental funding requests are not accounted in national deficits, which, in the short term, gives the impression of a more positive-looking balance-sheet.

Until recently, the Administration had been sending supplemental requests six months after the fiscal year had started, rather than the six months prior to the start of the Pentagon's fiscal year. This meant the military used funds alloted originally for procurement, training and repair, instead for its war efforts during the first six months of the fiscal year. This put pressure on Congress to approve the funding bills quickly to prevent military funding from drying up. Even a separate bridge fund of $50 billion set up to offset the time pressure did not go very far, as $10 billion are used up every month in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 2007 and 2008 supplemental requests were sent to Capitol Hill in February, at the same time as the 2008 Defense Department budget request.

Security situation in Iraq

Gates said Thursday that increasing troop strength in Iraq and stepping up security in Baghdad is working.

Planners predicted the increase in major bombings by insurgents, Gates told reporters at a news conference. He blamed a "relatively small" number of people for sectarian killings. An unnamed U.S. military analyst told reporters last month that 70,000 "hard-line operators and part-time supporters" were actively resisting the current security operations.

"So far, so good…the early signs are positive," Gates said. "There is a great reluctance to engage in happy talk about this. It's a tough environment."

"One real possibility is if we abandon some of these areas and withdraw into the countryside or whatever to do these targeted missions that you could have a fairly significant ethnic cleansing inside Baghdad and in Iraq more broadly,"

"What we do know is if Baghdad is in flames and the whole city is engulfed in violence, the prospects for a political solution are almost non-existent,"

Al Qaeda continues to launch dramatic terror attacks against population centres, Gates said, adding some of these attacks are in reaction to the progress being made.

“It’s been part of their strategy since last year to foment sectarian violence,” Gates said. “I think some of these large car bombs are to counteract some of the positive things that have been happening as a result of even the two brigades going into Baghdad along with a significant number of Iraqi forces.”

Gates said he is pleased with the commitment and cooperation from the Iraqi government. The Iraqis have delivered the additional troops they promised, and Iraqi commanders in Baghdad are directing operations. The Iraqi government is allowing Iraqi security forces and coalition forces into any neighbourhood.

The Iraqi government also is maintaining its commitment to no political interference in operations, Gates said.