On just his third day in his post, Gates journeyed to Iraq armed with a mandate from President Bush to help forge a new Iraq war strategy. His goal is get advice from his top military commanders on a new strategy for the increasingly unpopular, costly and chaotic war — a conflict that Bush conceded Tuesday the U.S. is not winning.
"We discussed the obvious things," Gates told reporters after meeting with top U.S. generals. "We discussed the possibility of a surge and the potential for what it might accomplish."
VIDEO: Gates arrives in Iraq
His trip so soon after taking office underscored the Bush administration's effort to be seen as energetically seeking a new path in the conflict.
Gates said he was only beginning the process of determining how to reshape U.S. policy in the war. He said before making final decisions, he would also confer with top Iraqi officials about what the future American role in the country should be.
Gates spoke to reporters after meeting with commanders including Army Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East; Gen. George Casey, the top commander in Iraq; and Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, in charge of day-to-day operations in Iraq.
Abizaid and Casey have both raised questions in the past about the value of sending thousands of extra troops into Iraq, where violence has been rising in recent months.
Several top U.S. commanders have been wary of even a short-term troop increase, saying it might only bring a temporary respite to the violence while confronting the U.S. with shortages of fresh troops in the future.
Asked at a news briefing about a possible surge of U.S. troops, Casey repeated his concern that additional troops have to be for a particular reason.
"I'm not necessarily opposed to the idea, but what I want to see happen is when, if we do bring more American troops here, they help us progress to our strategic objectives," Casey said.
"All options are on the table," said Abizaid.
Gates and the generals did not cite any figures or timetables for a possible troop increase.
Among the proposals Bush is considering is buttressing the 140,000 U.S. troops currently in Iraq to try to control surging violence in Baghdad and the unabated Sunni insurgency in Anbar province. Extra forces would also make it easier for the U.S. to increase the number of American advisers for Iraqi security forces.
Shortly before Gates' arrival, the U.S. military in Iraq announced that a senior al-Qaeda leader had been arrested in Mosul on Dec. 14 and that security responsibilities in Iraq's southern Najaf province were handed over to Iraqi forces earlier Wednesday. It was not clear whether the announcements were timed to coincide with Gates' visit.
On Wednesday, Bush said he is ready to boost the overall size of the U.S. military, acknowledging he agrees with recent complaints by top generals that the forces have been stretched too thin by the worldwide campaign against terrorists. He used no figures, but said he was asking Gates to produce a plan for the expansion.
Gates' trip to Iraq comes with the Bush administration under intense pressure from Congress and the American public to sort through options for a war that has caused the deaths of more than 2,940 U.S. troops and cost more than $300 billion. More than three-and-a-half years after the U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, the conflict now involves insurgents and bloodshed between Sunnis and Shiites that seems on the cusp of civil war.
Bush is considering choices ranging from a short-term surge of thousands of troops to bring the escalating violence in Baghdad and Anbar province under control, to removing combat U.S. forces and accelerating the training and equipping of Iraqi security forces. More than one-third of the U.S. troops in Iraq are combat forces.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said from Damascus, where he met with Syrian President Bashar Assad, that the violence in Iraq could only be resolved by a "comprehensive political reconciliation" between Shia and Sunni factions. Kerry has been on a tour of the Mideast. Kerry appeared on NBC's Today show.
Gates' visit also follows the release of a grim Pentagon report that revealed a 22% increase in violence in Iraq since August, and a steady decline in confidence Iraqis have in their government.
He went there earlier this year as a member of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan commission that spent nine months assessing the situation in Iraq. It produced recommendations that include phasing out most U.S. combat troops by early 2008, increasing military training for Iraqis and including Iran and Syria in regional efforts to end the violence.
Rumsfeld resigned last month after Democrats swept elections to win control of the House and Senate next year. Their triumph was powered by an American electorate that many believe have lost patience with the conflict.