Wednesday, September 1, 2010

U.S. Formally Begins a New Era in Iraq

BAGHDAD — The United States began a fragile new era in its turbulent history with Iraq on Wednesday as American political and military leaders marked the official end of combat operations but acknowledged that a difficult milestone, the creation of a new coalition Iraqi government, was not yet in reach.
Obama Declares an End to Combat Mission in Iraq (September 1, 2010)

In the marble rotunda of Al Faw Palace, one of the lavish former homes of Saddam Hussein that serves as the American military headquarters in Baghdad, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Gen. Ray Odierno sounded the same theme in a made-for-television ceremony to inaugurate Operation New Dawn, as the post-combat phase has been named. The United States, they said, was moving toward an exit after seven years of war but would not abandon the country.

“We stood together in difficult times, we fought together, we laughed together and sometimes died together,” said General Odierno, who formally ended four years as the top American commander in Iraq during the ceremony. He said the change in mission, which still leaves 50,000 American troops in the country, “in no way signals the end of our commitment to the people of Iraq.”

The ceremony, attended by hundreds of American and Iraqi military commanders under United States and Iraqi flags hung from the rotunda’s black marble columns, at times resembled a high school reunion as officers who served multiple deployments in Iraq greeted one another before the formalities began.

The setting was rich in symbolism: Some seven years and five months ago, American forces entered the decrepit palace during the invasion of Baghdad to find an enormous crater from an American bomb, no plumbing or electricity, and goats wandering the rooms.

Despite the pageantry of the ceremony, held the day after President Obama declared combat operations at an end in a prime-time address from the Oval Office, military officials said they remained concerned about the bloodshed in Iraq, which has been sharply reduced from dark days before a 2007 increase in American forces but is still not under control.

Recent statistics gathered by the United States military show that in the first 17 days of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that began in August, there was an increase in casualties when compared with a similar period during Ramadan in 2009. Specifically, civilian casualties had increased more than 55 percent, Iraqi security force casualties were up more than 35 percent and American casualties had risen 25 percent.

There has also been a major increase in rocket and mortar attacks in the fortified Green Zone and at the Baghdad airport, according to Gen. Ralph A. Baker, the deputy commander of American forces in central Iraq. General Baker, who said there had been about 60 such attacks in the last two months compared with “two or three” in the preceeding months, blamed a “confluence” of factors, including frustration over electricity, the return of Iranian-trained militants and Iraq’s failure to produce a post-election government, which the insurgents had sought to exploit.

The goal of the insurgents, he said, is to “further erode confidence” in the Iraqi government and Iraqi forces “by trying to portray them as weak.”

Both Mr. Biden and Mr. Gates expressed concern about the failure of the Iraqis to form a government six months after elections, although they sought to cast the stalemate in a positive light. “Politics has broken out in Iraq,” Mr. Biden said in his remarks from the podium. But he added that the Iraqis had courageously voted in large numbers, and therefore “they expect a government that reflects the results of the votes they cast.”

Mr. Gates, who has taken a markedly anti-triumphal tone during the clamor surrounding the end of combat, said earlier on Wednesday that history had still to judge whether America’s involvement in the seven-year-old war was worth the cost.

In subdued and reflective comments on Wednesday morning to reporters in Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar Province and the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the war, Mr. Gates said that while American servicemen and women “have accomplished something really quite extraordinary here, how it all weighs in the balance over time I think remains to be seen.”

Asked directly if the war had been worth it, Mr. Gates replied, “It really requires a historian’s perspective in terms of what happens here in the long run.”
-Article taken from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/02/world/middleeast/02iraq.html

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Marking Iraq Milestone, Gates Strikes Cautious Note

MILWAUKEE — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates warned on Tuesday against “premature victory parades or self-congratulations” as American combat operations in Iraq drew officially to a close, and at the same time said that the success of United States forces in Afghanistan was only “possible,” not inevitable.

In remarks to the American Legion that foreshadowed an address by President Obama on Tuesday night to mark the Aug. 31 date for the withdrawal of all United States combat troops from Iraq, Mr. Gates sounded a restrained, sober note about the state of America’s two wars.
In Iraq, he said, the most recent elections have yet to result in a coalition government, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is beaten but not gone, and sectarian tensions remain. He said the 50,000 United States troops still in Iraq would continue to work with Iraqi security forces, who only last week faced a flurry of coordinated insurgent attacks across the country that killed at least 51 people.
“I am not saying that all is, or necessarily will be, well in Iraq,” Mr. Gates, who is one of Mr. Obama’s most influential advisers, told the legion.
In Afghanistan, he said, the Taliban are “a cruel and ruthless adversary, and are not going quietly.” Their leadership, he said, has ordered a campaign of intimidation against Afghan civilians and is singling out women for brutal attacks.
“I know there is a good deal of concern and impatience about the pace of progress since the new strategy was announced last December,” Mr. Gates said, referring to Mr. Obama’s decision to send to Afghanistan 30,000 additional United States troops, who have finished arriving only this month. Total American forces in Afghanistan now number nearly 100,000.
But in an attempt to draw a parallel between the current fragile stability of Iraq and what might be possible in Afghanistan, Mr. Gates said that the intensifying combat and rising casualties in Afghanistan were in many ways reminiscent of the early months of the surge of United States forces ordered in Iraq by President George W. Bush in 2007, when American troops were taking the highest losses of the war.
“Three and a half years ago very few believed the surge could take us to where we are today in Iraq, and there were plenty of reasons for doubts,” said Mr. Gates, who helped make the surge decision as Mr. Bush’s defense secretary at the time. But “back then, this country’s civilian and military leadership chose the path we believed had the best chance of achieving our national security objectives, as we are doing in Afghanistan today.”
He added: “Success there is not inevitable. But with the right strategy and the willingness to see it through, it is possible. And it is worth the fight.”
Despite his cautious tone on Iraq, Mr. Gates cited what he called dramatic security gains. He said that violence levels this year remained at their lowest level since the beginning of the war in 2003, that American forces have not had to conduct an airstrike in six months and that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia had been largely cut off “from its masters abroad.”
But he said the gains had been purchased “at a terrible cost:” More than 4,400 American service members killed, 34,265 Americans wounded or injured and untold losses and trauma endured by the Iraqis themselves.
In Afghanistan, Mr. Gates promised that the United States would take a hard line against corruption in the Afghan government. He also echoed Mr. Obama and senior military commanders by saying that the president’s deadline for the start of withdrawals of United States forces from Afghanistan next July would be a gradual beginning, not a massive departure.
“If the Taliban really believe that America is heading for the exits next summer in large numbers, they’ll be deeply disappointed and surprised to find us still very much in the fight,” he said.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Bombs kill seven US soldiers in Afghanistan

Seven US soldiers have been killed in two bomb attacks in southern Afghanistan, the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) says.

Five troops were killed by a roadside bomb in one incident while two others died in a separate bomb attack, Isaf said in a statement.

Witnesses in Kandahar said a US Army vehicle hit a bomb in the early afternoon, the Associated Press said.

Fourteen US soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan in the last three days.