FORT RUCKER, Ala. — Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday that he'd made a mistake when he said that the rising tide of violence in Iraq is the "last gasp" of al Qaida there.
"What I should have said is that I hope it's al Qaida's last gasp. I don't know if it is," Gates told reporters traveling with him on a trip to Fort Rucker, where he went to meet troops and discuss his proposed budget.
Gates made the comment last Tuesday on "The News Hour" on PBS. In the days that followed, Iraq saw some of the worst violence of the year, including the deaths of five American soldiers in a suicide attack the northern Iraqi city Mosul. At least 60 Iraqis were killed and another 200 injured in that and other attacks.
His statements come as some are asking whether the U.S. can withdraw nearly all its combat forces by the end of 2011, with rising tensions between Kurds and Sunni Arabs and between Sunnis and Shiites, along with the increase in attacks against Iraqis. Under an agreement, nearly all U.S. combat troops must leave by then, and all combat troops must be of Iraqi cities by June 30.
In the PBS interview, Gates said that recent violence in Baghdad was an attempt by "al Qaida, trying sort of as a last gasp, to try and reverse the progress that's been made." It was an echo of former Vice President Dick Cheney, who said in 2005 that the insurgency was "in the last throes." The following two years were the deadliest period of the Iraq war.
On Sunday, Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, the top military commander in Iraq, said he was certain the U.S. would honor the status of forces agreement. However, Army Col. Gary Volesky, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division's 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, told reporters at the Pentagon in a video teleconference from Iraq Tuesday that troops may stay longer, beyond June 30, in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, which has seen some of the worst attacks. U.S. officials think that al Qaida has more influence there than anywhere else in Iraq.
"We are conducting an assessment right now with our Iraqi counterparts to determine what the way ahead is for the security in Mosul," Volesky said. "Based on that assessment, a decision will be made on what we will do on 30th of June."
In Paris, Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdel Mahdi said his government would be flexible about U.S. troops staying in Mosul. He was firm, however, about the complete U.S. withdrawal by the end of 2011, calling it "definitive."
The pace of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq not only could shape what kind of security situation the U.S. leave behind there but also the future of its strategy in Afghanistan. President Barack Obama has called for an additional 17,500 troops by the end of the year, with another 10,000 to deploy starting this fall. Military officials said, however, that the plan for Afghanistan depends largely on how quickly they can draw down in Iraq.
There are roughly 140,000 troops in Iraq and 42,000 in Afghanistan.
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