- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 20, 2006

11:44 a.m.

BAGHDAD — New Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in an unannounced trip to the battlefront, discussed a possible infusion of more U.S. troops into Iraq with American commanders today but said he has made no decisions.

On just his third day in his post, Mr. Gates journeyed to Iraq armed with a mandate from President Bush to help forge a new Iraq war strategy. His goal is get advice from his top military commanders on a new strategy for the increasingly unpopular, costly and chaotic war.

“We discussed the obvious things,” Mr. Gates told reporters after meeting with top U.S. generals. “We discussed the possibility of a surge and the potential for what it might accomplish.”

His trip so soon after taking office underscored the Bush administration’s effort to be seen as energetically seeking a new path in the conflict.

Mr. Gates said he was only beginning the process of determining how to reshape U.S. policy in the war. He said that before making final decisions, he would confer also with top Iraqi officials about what the future American role in the country should be.

Mr. Gates spoke to reporters after meeting with commanders, including Army Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East; Gen. George Casey, the top commander in Iraq; and Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, in charge of day-to-day operations in Iraq.

Gen. Abizaid and Gen. Casey both have raised questions in the past about the value of sending thousands of extra troops into Iraq, where violence has been rising in recent months.

Several top U.S. commanders have been wary of even a short-term troop increase, saying it might only bring a temporary respite to the violence while confronting the United States with shortages of fresh troops in the future.

Asked at a press briefing about a possible surge of U.S. troops, Gen. Casey repeated his concern that additional troops have to be for a particular reason.

“I’m not necessarily opposed to the idea, but what I want to see happen is when, if we do bring more American troops here, they help us progress to our strategic objectives,” he said.

“All options are on the table,” Gen. Abizaid said.

Mr. Gates and the generals did not cite any figures or timetables for any troop increase.

Among the proposals Mr. Bush is considering is buttressing the 140,000 U.S. troops currently in Iraq to try to control surging violence in Baghdad and the unabated Sunni insurgency in Anbar province. Extra forces also would make it easier for the United States to increase the number of American advisers for Iraqi security forces.

Shortly before Mr. Gates’ arrival, the U.S. military in Iraq announced that a senior al Qaeda leader had been arrested in Mosul on Thursday and that security responsibilities in Iraq’s southern Najaf province were handed over to Iraqi forces earlier today. It was not clear whether the announcements were timed to coincide with Mr. Gates’ visit.

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