by Jim MannionSun Aug 5, 4:00 PM ET
The United States envisions a long-term residual US military presence in Iraq, amid "disappointing" political progress that will force a strategic reassessment next month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday.
Gates said a reduction in the 155,000-strong US force in Iraq by the end of this year was "a possibility" but gave no hint of what US Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General David Petraeus will recommend when they report to Congress in September.
In US television interviews, Gates said the US "surge" troop hike had succeeded in dampening violence and that progress was being made in places like Al-Anbar province, where he said Sunni former opponents of the US occupation have switched to the US side recent months.
Gates called reconciliation efforts at the national level "disappointing" and said he had warned Iraqi leaders that leaving on vacation was unacceptable because "every day we buy you ... we are buying with American blood."
Moreover, Gates said he told regional leaders during a trip to the Middle East last week that the United States anticipates working out arrangements with the Iraqis to keep a residual force in Iraq "at some fraction of the current level."
He said it would be "a stabilizing and supporting force in Iraq for some protracted period of time."
"So I think that that's generally the view of almost anybody who is looking at this, that some kind of residual force for some period of time will be required beyond when we begin a drawdown," he said on CNN.
But Gates also admitted that the US administration had underestimated the depth of mistrust between Sunni and Shiite factions.
"Their inability to reconcile among themselves at this national level and to get some of the legislation passed clearly is disappointing," he said.
"So it is a disappointing picture for the central government right now, but there are some positive things happening at the local level. And obviously in the security arena," he said separately on NBC.
The main Sunni bloc withdrew from the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki last week, dealing a blow to US efforts to promote reconciliation.
The Iraqi parliament, meanwhile, ignored US pleas and went into a month-long recess without passing any legislation aimed at giving Sunnis a greater stake in the political process.
"We've been very clear that we don't think that they have achieved enough and that they need to work harder," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Fox News Sunday. "We've been very clear that there is an urgency to this."
But the chief US diplomat made a show of support for the Maliki government, which she said could ram through long-anticipated reforms but preferred to first seek greater consensus.
"There's no doubt that they have enough votes in coalition to pass a national oil law, that they could pass de-Baathification laws (to dismantle executed dictator Saddam Hussein's old party)," Rice said.
"But they are trying to do this by consensus. They are trying to do it in a way that brings all Iraqis together regardless of what sectarian or what confessional groups they come from, and that's very, very hard."
The Maliki government's failure to make progress toward national reconciliation or to end the Sunni insurgency has fueled calls in the US Congress for a timetable for the withdrawal of the 155,000 US troops from Iraq.
Asked on NBC whether there would be a strategic reassessment if Iraq did not pass legislation to unify the country by mid-September, Gates said: "I think we would have to, yes. That's the whole point of the Crocker-Petraeus effort."
Gates gave no indication what will come out of the assessment, which is due to be delivered to Congress by September 15.
As a former member of the Iraq Study Group, Gates said that had he not become defense secretary he probably would have supported its recommendation to withhold support for the central government if it failed to meet political benchmarks.
But the turnabout in Al-Anbar province and other Sunni areas had changed the circumstances, said Gates, who defended the deal-making with tribal leaders who had supported the insurgency as a necessary part of bringing peace.
"I guess by the time this whole thing is over we will have had to make arrangements with a variety of people that at one time or another were opposed to us," he said.
"That's the way the political process is going to evolve in Iraq," he said.