ABOARD A U.S. AIR FORCE PLANE — Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, returning from a four-day trip to the Middle East, offered a pessimistic view of Iraq's political progress Thursday, saying he thought that the United States had underestimated the level of distrust between the Shiite Muslim-led government and other ethnic groups.
"I just think 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, which, let's face it, is not just some kind of secondary thing," Gates said aboard his plane en route to Washington.
"The kinds of legislation they're talking about 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," when the Bush administration began implementing its policy of a U.S. troop buildup.
Gates' assessment was the frankest by an administration official since the troop buildup began, and it came in the midst of heated debate in Washington about what the U.S. should do in Iraq in the face of an Iraqi government that hasn't met the benchmarks that Congress established in May.
While Gates was in the region, six Sunni Muslim ministers resigned from the Iraqi Cabinet, saying that Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a Shiite, has done nothing to meet their demands, including disbanding Shiite militias. Gates called the resignations "discouraging."
The bad news continued Thursday, as Sunni Vice President Tariq al Hashemi, the only Iraqi Accordance Front member who remains in Maliki's government, told McClatchy Newspapers that he also is on the verge of resigning.
Hashemi said he'd told U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker on Wednesday that the Iraqi government needed a "political shock" to stop it from continuing to marginalize the Sunnis. He said that without a change, Crocker and Army Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, would be forced to issue a negative report on Iraq to Congress in September.
"We need these major political moves to tell everybody that what is happening is in no way tolerable," Hashemi said. "Nobody on earth or in Iraq is happy with the performance of the government."
Gates spoke at the end of a rare joint Middle East tour with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, during which both warned of the growing regional threat from Shiite Iran, urged Sunni Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia to throw their support behind the Maliki government and promised U.S. support for Israel and the Palestinians in establishing a Palestinian state.
Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbors expressed strong fears about the aftermath should U.S. troops pull out, but were reluctant to support the Maliki government, which Sunni politicians in Iraq accuse of turning a blind eye to Shiite militias' attacks on Sunnis.
Gates charged that Iran was "actively engaged right now in activities that are contrary to the interests of . . . virtually all of the countries we just visited as well as the United States and Iraq." The more countries that bring pressure on the Iranian government, "the better off we'll be," he said.
He made no secret of his disappointment with the latest developments in Iraq, but cited some bright spots on the provincial and local levels.
"I think the developments on the political side are somewhat discouraging at the national level. And clearly the withdrawal of the Sunnis from the government is discouraging. My hope is it can all be patched back together again," he said earlier Thursday as he returned from a lunch with the United Arab Emirates crown prince.
However, he said that Sunni provincial leaders in once-restive Anbar province had been reaching out to the U.S. military, which had led to a drop in violence
"The developments at the local level, I think, are more encouraging than I would have expected three or four months ago," he said.
(Leila Fadel contributed to this article from Baghdad.)