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Gates, in Iraq, Hears Support for More Troops

DAVID S. CLOUD
NY Times
Thursday, December 21, 2006

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, talking to enlisted soldiers on his second day in Iraq, heard broad support today for a proposal to send more American forces to Iraq, an idea that has emerged as a leading option as the Bush administration considers a strategy shift.

“I really think we need more troops here,” said Specialist Jason T. Glenn, one of several soldiers at a breakfast meeting with Mr. Gates who backed the idea. “With more presence here,” he said, security might improve to a point that “we can get the Iraqi Army trained up.”

Mr. Gates said later, after meeting with Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and other senior Iraqi officials, that he had discussed “the possibility of some additional assistance” with the Iraqis, but that there had been no mention of specific numbers of additional American troops.

Although Bush administration officials are considering a temporary troop increase of 20,000 soldiers or more, which would raise troop levels in Iraq to more than 150,000, the idea runs counter to the desire of many American commanders for the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi police to take more responsibility for security. Mr. Gates has provided no firm signs on what he will recommend to Mr. Bush after returning from Iraq.

Still, the Bush administration may see a temporary increase as a way to regain momentum in Baghdad, where security has been deteriorating, as well as providing leverage to get Mr. Maliki to take steps sought by American officials, like moving more Iraqi troops into Baghdad and moving against sectarian militias.

At a news conference with the Iraqi defense minister, Abdul Qadir al-Obaidi, Mr. Gates said he discussed with the Iraqis was how their government could take the lead, especially in reducing the worsening violence in Baghdad.

“One of the strong messages I received today was the desire of the Iraqi government to take a leadership role in addressing some of the challenges that face the country — above all, the security problem here in Baghdad,” Mr. Gates said. The talks examined “how in our partnership with the Iraqis in the lead we can best play a supporting role” in improving security, Mr. Gates added.

Mr. Gates said at the breakfast meeting with troops that the Bush administration was putting together a package of idea for reversing the violence, including new procedures for delivering reconstruction assistance quickly to places where the military has conducted operations to clear out insurgents and militias.

Mr. Gates said the first assistance to a neighborhood should come “within hours” of the end of such a clearing operation, to shows residents the tangible benefits of rejecting militants and backing the Iraqi government.

It was not clear how the soldiers who met with Mr. Gates had been selected, but in a show of hands he requested, about half said they were serving their second tour in Iraq and the rest said they were in their first deployment.

Several soldiers said the Iraqi Army and police were improving but were not competent enough for them to shift to a supporting role. Many Iraqi soldiers and police officers do not show up regularly for work, they said, and some tip off insurgents and sectarian militias about coming military operations.

“Are they ready to take it on themselves?” Mr. Gates asked, referring to the Iraqi security forces. Sgt. Christopher Coulter, an infantryman with the First Infantry Division, replied, “Not now, but they’re getting a lot better”

When Mr. Gates asked, “Do you think we need more American troops?” a majority of the soldiers nodded their heads or murmured, “Yes, sir.”

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