WASHINGTON (March 19, 2009) – Prospects for the Iraqi people “get better every day,” with the Iraqis now solving their problems “politically, and not with guns,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday as Operation Iraqi Freedom marks its sixth anniversary.
“That’s a much different kind of life,” Gates said, contrasting life in Iraq now to what the Iraqis endured under Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship.
And while challenges remain, Gates noted positive trends in Iraq’s security, diplomacy and economy. “I think that we will be in a much better place in 2011,” he said.
Gates conceded that those strides have come at a high cost for the Iraqis, the coalition and the American people.
“The past six years have been very difficult for them and very painful for them, and very difficult for us as well,” he said.
One of the most difficult periods since Operation Iraqi Freedom launched on March 19, 2003, came in 2006 when officials conceded that Iraq was on the verge of failure.
A 20,000-troop surge, together with a new U.S. strategy promoting more diplomatic and economic initiatives, helped turn Iraq from a failed state to what officials concede is a fragile one. The state of security, they say, is becoming less fragile every day.
“I believe that the Iraqi people today, with all that pain in the past, have a future that they have probably never had before,” Gates said yesterday. “They actually have a say in who governs them, where there is the opportunity for people to live under a government that operates under the law, and the opportunity for economic growth and prosperity that makes life better for all Iraqis.”
Still, the roots of Iraq’s democratic government “are still relatively shallow,” Gates said, and need to continue growing.
“There is still a need for further reconciliation and ensuring that things like the hydrocarbon law get passed, and that some of the issues between the Arabs and the Kurds are resolved peacefully,” he said.
“It will probably take some considerable period of time for the Iraqis to work their way through” these and other issues, he said, but the future looks positive.
Security trends continue to move in a positive direction, said Air Force Lt. Col. Patrick Ryder, a Defense Department spokesman. Violence is down in virtually every category: fewer civilian, coalition and Iraqi security force casualties, fewer insurgent bombings and suicide attacks, and less ethno-sectarian violence.
Iraqi security forces, working closely with coalition troops, have made headway in disrupting al-Qaida networks and reducing terrorists’ ability to communicate and coordinate, Ryder said.
Meanwhile, as President Barack Obama announced during a Feb. 27 visit to Camp Lejeune, N.C., the mission of U.S. forces in Iraq will fundamentally change after Aug. 31, 2010. At that point, the U.S. military will have three tasks:
• Train, equip and advise the Iraqi security forces;
• Conduct targeted counterterrorism operations; and
• Provide force protection for military and civilian personnel.
And, except for counterterrorism operations conducted in close coordination with the Iraqi government, U.S. forces will cease combat operations.
Multinational Force Iraq will be redesignated as a transition force headquarters consisting of a single headquarters, several advisory and assistance brigades and appropriate supporting forces, Ryder said.
As the United States transitions full security responsibility to the Iraqis and draws down U.S. forces in Iraq, Obama pledged to proceed cautiously and in close coordination with commanders on the ground and the Iraqi government.
“As we carry out this drawdown, my highest priority will be the safety and security of our troops and civilians in Iraq,” he said during his Camp Lejeune visit. “So we will proceed carefully, and I will consult closely with my military commanders on the ground and with the Iraqi government.”
“There will surely be difficult periods and tactical adjustments,” Obama said. “But our enemies should be left with no doubt: This plan gives our military the forces and flexibility they need to support our Iraqi partners, and to succeed."