- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 2, 2007

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — U.S. officials underestimated how difficult it would be for the Iraqi government to pass political reforms, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today, adding that the depth of mistrust among the factions is greater than anticipated.

Talking to reporters onboard his plane as he returned from a four-day swing through the Middle East, Mr. Gates said he is more optimistic about improvements in security in the war-torn nation than he is about getting legislation passed by the bitterly divided government.

In some ways, we probably all underestimated the depth of the mistrust and how difficult it would be for these guys to come together on legislation, Mr. Gates said. The kinds of legislation they’re talking about will establish the framework of Iraq for the future, so it’s almost like our constitutional convention. … And the difficulty in coming to grips with those, we may all have underestimated six or eight months ago.

Mr. Gates‘ comments came a day after six Sunni Cabinet ministers from the Iraqi Accordance Front quit in protest over what they said was Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s failure to respond to a set of demands. Just two Sunnis remain in the 40-member Cabinet, and Mr. Maliki was working to get the six to reconsider.

The Bush administration ordered a buildup of U.S. forces in Iraq — adding about 30,000 troops for a total of nearly 160,000 — to quell the violence so the government could stabilize and take hold. That would then allow the U.S. to begin the much-demanded withdrawal of troops.

Mr. Gates said the political developments are somewhat discouraging at the national level.

Meanwhile, he said security is improving.

I am optimistic on the security side because of what I see in al-Anbar [province] and what we’re seeing in some of the other provinces where we’re getting some cooperation, he said.

Military commanders have attributed the decline in violence in Anbar to successful efforts working with local tribal leaders who grew sick of the insurgency-spawned bloodshed and turned their backs on al Qaeda. As a result, the military has been trying to duplicate those efforts in other parts of the country.