Gates says Iraq security still tenuous despite declines in violence

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AP Military Writer

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Despite dramatic declines in violence in recent months, the security situation in Iraq is tenuous, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday.

Gates lauded the war record of Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the No. 2 commander in Iraq, at an awards ceremony.

"Levels of violence of all kinds (are) dramatically reduced," Gates said. "The situation in Iraq continues to remain fragile, but the Iraqi people now have an opportunity to forge a better, more secure, more prosperous future."

Odierno is departing after 15 months in charge of the headquarters that carries out Gen. David Petraeus' strategy on a day-to-day basis. Odierno is returning to Washington and has been nominated by Bush for promotion to four-star rank and assignment as Army vice chief of staff.

On Sunday, Gates said Iraq's political leaders face hard choices on how to stabilize the country despite promising new signs of progress toward reconciliation.

"They seem to have become energized over the last few weeks," Gates said. The Pentagon chief told reporters who traveled with him from a conference in Germany that he wants to "see what the prospects are for further success in the next couple of months."

In an interview on the trip to Iraq, Gates cited the recent passage of an amnesty law as an example of political progress. He said he would ask Iraqi leaders to assess the prospects for other important steps such as passing a law that would spell out power-sharing between the provinces and the national government.

He compared the struggle over that idea to the U.S. founding fathers' quest to find a constitutional compromise on how to share power in Congress between big and small states.

Gates said he would make clear to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other political leaders that "our continued eagerness for them to proceed and successfully conclude some of this legislation" considered essential to reconciling Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

Gates arrived after dark Sunday at Baghdad International Airport aboard an Air Force C-17 cargo plane. He flew by helicopter to a private dinner with government officials, including al-Maliki, Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

It was Gates' first visit this year and possibly his last before Petraeus and Crocker return to Washington in April to recommend to President Bush whether to continue reducing U.S. troop levels after Petraeus' current drawdown plan is completed in July. By then, four brigades are to have gone home, leaving 15.

"I would be interested in how they are planning it -- which units are coming out" between now and July, Gates said.

The trickier question is whether Petraeus will tell Bush that security conditions in Baghdad and elsewhere have improved enough to permit even more troop cuts without risking a deterioration in security. Petraeus' strategy is based on an expectation that improved security over time will give Iraqi political leaders an impetus to make compromises on legislation and other moves toward reconciliation.

Asked whether he would question Petraeus about the possibility of recommending a pause in the troop drawdown this summer, Gates replied, "I think our conversation will cover the whole range of possibilities."

In his talks with Iraq's political leaders, Gates said he intended to make clear "our continued eagerness for them to proceed and successfully conclude some of this legislation," which has taken longer than many had hoped.

Before Gates' arrival, the U.S. military said a diary and another document seized during raids showed that some al-Qaida in Iraq leaders fear the terrorist group is crumbling and that many fighters are defecting to American-backed neighborhood groups. But violence also raged Sunday. The U.S. military said a car bomb exploded near an Iraqi checkpoint in an open-market area north of Baghdad, killing at least 23 civilians and wounding 25.

Bush, discussing the long-term U.S. relationship with Iraq, said in an interview broadcast in the United States: "We will be there at the invitation of the Iraqi government. ... We won't have permanent bases. I do believe it is in our interests and the interests of the Iraqi people that we do enter into an agreement on how we are going to conduct ourselves over the next years."

Last year, Bush ordered five additional Army brigades to Iraq. One of those brigades left in December and the other four are due to come out by July, leaving 15 brigades, or about 130,000 to 135,000 troops -- the same number as before Bush sent the reinforcements.

Those additional troops have not led to political change and American soldiers deserve better "than a policy of war without end," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who called for the U.S. to begin pulling its forces from Iraq. But House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio, appearing on the same Sunday talk show, said "Democrats continue to be in denial about the success we're having in Iraq."

Petraeus recently said it would be prudent to "let things settle a bit" before embarking on a new round of cuts. Gates has not said whether he agreed with Petraeus, though the secretary noted other commanders and service chiefs would weigh in with their opinions.