WASHINGTON, April 22, 2007 (AFP) – US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates took his soft-spoken approach to the troubled Middle East last week as he addressed the harsh realities facing Iraq’s beleaguered government.
Unlike his more strident predecessor Donald Rumsfeld, the gray-haired, mild-mannered former CIA chief discussed Iraq in humble tones, acknowledging the serious problems plaguing the Baghdad leadership and the limits of US military might.
“There is not yet confidence in the region that Iraq’s government represents all Iraqis,” he said during his five-day tour that took him to Jordan, Egypt, Israel and Iraq.
Gates sought to reassure Jordan and Egypt which along with other Sunni Arab states have expressed concern over Shiite Iran’s influence over the largely Shiite government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki.
In Amman, his first stop, Gates met Jordan’s King Abdullah II and said the two sides “agreed that diplomatic and economic pressure” was the best way to influence Iraq.
King Abdullah, however, made no mention of Iran in a statement, stressing the overriding importance of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which the palace described as “the core conflict in the region.”
In Iraq, Gates met with top military brass and lobbied Iraqi officials to push through crucial legislation, including a law regulating the oil industry and another on revenue sharing.
Gates acknowledged the friction between the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities, and said that reaching agreement on these laws is “probably harder than they anticipated.”
He added: “It’s not that these laws are going to change the situation immediately, but the ability to get them done communicates a willingness to work together.”
Amid continuing bloodshed in Iraq, Gates used careful language to describe the results of the new US strategy in Iraq involving a surge in American troops.
“I think it is no surprise that the results are mixed at this point. There will probably be tough days … but I’m hopeful and modestly optimistic.”
He also warned the Iraqi leadership that the US commitment was not open-ended and urged the need for political reconciliation.
The remarks by Gates and top military officers were a stark contrast to the defiantly optimistic assessments often offered by Rumsfeld during his tenure at the Pentagon.
Gone is the US talk of “dead-ender” Baathist fighters and the insurgency being in its “last throes.”
With Gates by his side, General David Petraeus, who heads military operations in Iraq, made no effort to play down car bombings in Baghdad that killed some 200 people last week.
The general called the violence “sensational attacks” that “can be seen as none other than setbacks and challenges.”
In Israel, Gates said diplomacy was the best route for dealing with Iran’s disputed nuclear program, which the West fears is a cover for building an atomic bomb.
Referring to UN Security Council sanctions on Iran over Tehran’s refusal to suspend uranium enrichment, Gates preached patience and avoided sabre-rattling talk.
“These things don’t work overnight, but it seems to me clearly the preferable course to keep our focus on the diplomatic initiatives,” said Gates, the first US defense secretary to visit key ally Israel since 2000.
The next day Gates denied a report in the Jerusalem Post newspaper saying that he refused to discuss military operations against the Iranian government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who famously said he would like to see Israel “wiped off the map.”
Gates also chose to tactfully sidestep questions on the feud between President George W. Bush and Congress over US troop levels in Iraq.
Asked about Democratic Senator Harry Reid’s remark that the war in Iraq was lost, he said: “I have great respect for Senator Reid, and on the issue of whether the war is lost, I respectfully disagree.”
Could he offer a compromise over the deadlock on setting a date to withdraw US forces? “This is really a discussion that has to be between the president and congressional leadership,” he said.
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