U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates asked frontline U.S. troops over breakfast in Baghdad today whether they thought more U.S. forces were needed in Iraq, and virtually all 15 soldiers said yes, with none opposing the idea. This after several U.S. generals have questioned whether surging more troops into Iraq might be counterproductive and as President Bush considers U.S. options and prepares to unveil a new Iraq strategy.
Here's the U.S. military's news service report on the Gates breakfast exchange with U.S. troops:
Gates Meets With Troops Over Breakfast in Baghdad, Asks Their Advice By Kathleen T. Rhem American Forces Press Service
BAGHDAD, Dec. 21, 2006 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is here to ask tough questions of generals, diplomats and Iraqi leaders. But this morning, he asked some of the same questions to a different group of the people putting their lives on the line every day here: junior enlisted soldiers and Army noncommissioned officers. "What advice do you have for me on this, my fourth day on the job?" Gates asked about 15 soldiers of the 1st Infantry, 1st Cavalry and 10th Mountain divisions, with whom he had breakfast this morning.
He also asked them if they thought more troops would help the situation. Nearly all the soldiers agreed more troops would help, and none said they did not think it was a good idea.
"Sir, I think we need to just keep doing what we're doing," said Army Spc. Jason Glenn, of Company C, 101st Military Intelligence Battalion, part of the 1st Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team.
Glenn added that he thinks more troops would help the situation here.
"With more presence on the ground, more troops might hold (the insurgents) off long enough to where we could get the Iraqi army trained up," Glenn said.
Army Pfc. Cassandra Wallace, of the 210th Brigade Support Battalion, 10th Mountain Division, agreed. "More troops would help us integrate the Iraqi army into patrols more," she told Gates.
Army Sgt. Christopher Coulter, of Troop E, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, told Gates he doesn't believe the Iraqi army is ready to take responsibility for the country, "but they're getting a lot better."
Coulter also said he believes "there needs to be a lot more of them," because many don't come to work.
U.S. officials have acknowledged this is a problem within the Iraqi army. Most of the soldiers aren't deserting, but inadequate banking services in Iraq force them to physically take their pay home to their families. During a Pentagon roundtable with reporters earlier this week, officials said this problem often removes about 30 percent of Iraqi troops from the force at any given time.
Other soldiers offered different pieces of advice to Gates. One told him to keep an open mind, while another urged him to seek answers from people on the ground.
Another soldier told him that Iraqis don't have "normal everyday things," such as electricity, clean water and jobs that Americans take for granted. The soldier said helping the Iraqi people with these issues will make them less likely to joint the "Mahdi army," a militia group led by radical cleric Moqtada al Sadr.
Gates thanked the soldiers for their candor, their service and for being "at the point of the spear."
He gave soldiers a glimpse into his goals for Iraq. "We're trying to put together a package of new ways of doing things that will lead to more progress," he said.
This includes improving the economy and working with the Iraqis to meet their desire for control over their forces, but also making sure they don't fail, he said.
He also told the soldiers of growing threats in the region and how the mission in Iraq is more complex that it has been. Two or more years ago, Syria and especially Iran had "mixed" roles in Iraq, Gates said. "Now they're playing a very, very negative role," he said.
Gates said the United States needs to make sure Iraq's neighbors know the United States is committed to the stability of the Persian Gulf region and will stay as long as it is necessary.
Gates arrived here yesterday for a surprise visit, just days after he was sworn-in as defense secretary. He is working to formulate recommendations on the way ahead in Iraq for President Bush. Gates met yesterday with Army Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command; Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of Multinational Corps Iraq; and Gen. George W. Casey, commander of Multinational Force Iraq.
Gates will meet today with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki.
The new defense secretary came to Iraq to hear "first-hand candid, honest assessments from our commanders on how to proceed forward in Iraq, particularly since they'll be the ones to implement whatever decisions are made," he said yesterday.