WASHINGTON — Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday that the success of the U.S. troop surge in Iraq should be measured not by whether violence is reduced, but by whether Iraqis feel better about their nation's future.
In their weekly news conference, both Pace and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates defended the surge, despite a rise in violence against civilians and increasing deaths among U.S. soldiers. Gates said that the increased violence is because U.S. and Iraqi troops are entering new areas.
"Our troops and the Iraqi troops are going into areas where they haven't been for some time, and they anticipated that there would be a high level of combat as they did that," Gates said.
Their comments come at a time when assessments of the situation in Iraq indicate that violence hasn't gone down with the addition of 28,500 troops in Iraq. A Defense Department assessment released last week said violence against civilians had remained unchanged in February, March and April. The new Baghdad security plan began on Feb. 15.
Several members of Congress have said that if that trend holds when the U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David Petraeus, makes a required assessment on Sept. 15, then pressure will build for a change in Iraq strategy.
Pace said, however, violence shouldn't be the way the surge's success is judged. He said the surge was intended to give the Iraqi government time to make political progress on divisive benchmark issues, such as how to distribute oil revenues among Iraq's sects and ethnic groups and when to hold provincial elections. How Iraqis feel about their government is a better measure of success, he said.
"If you try to define this in terms of level of violence, you've really put yourself on the wrong metric. It isn't about X number today, Y number tomorrow, because the enemy gets a chance to vote in that," Pace said. "The metric really should be for Iraqi citizens. Do they feel better about their lives today than they did yesterday? And do they think they're going to feel better about their lives tomorrow than they do today?"
The Pentagon's most recent assessment contained two gauges of Iraqi sentiment toward their government. In one, 58 percent of Iraqis said they had confidence in the Iraqi government to improve the situation. That number has held relatively stable for the past year, the report said.
The other asked Iraqis if they have confidence in the Iraqi government's ability to protect them from "threat." The report said 50 percent answered affirmatively in April, vs. 48 percent in December.
The number, however, showed wide variation by sect. In areas dominated by Shiites, whose political parties also dominate the government, 80 percent of respondents or more said yes. In Sunni areas, almost no respondents said yes.
Pace didn't say whether he thought those specific measures were the ones that should be used to measure the surge's success.
Earlier this month, Gates announced that he wouldn't re-nominate Pace to his post, saying members of Congress had warned that the confirmation hearing would focus on Iraq policy and be contentious. President Bush nominated Adm. Mike Mullen to replace Pace, whose term ends Sept. 30.
Gates also responded to an assertion earlier this week by acting Secretary of Army Peter Geren that the Army may need to extend deployments in Iraq beyond the current 15-month maximum. Geren made the assertion during his confirmation hearing on his nomination to the post permanently.
Gates called such an extension a "worst-case scenario." Earlier this year, the Army extended deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan to 15 months from 12 to help staff the surge.
On Thursday, the U.S. military announced that 15 soldiers had been killed in Iraq in the past three days, bringing the monthly total to 71, according to icasualties.org.