Gates Gets Firsthand View Of Iraq

New U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in an unannounced trip to the battlefront, discussed the possibility of boosting U.S. troop strength in Iraq with U.S. commanders in the beleaguered country but has made no decisions about what to do, he said Wednesday.

On just his third day in his post, Gates journeyed to Iraq armed with a mandate from President George W. 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 Mr. 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."

When he boarded his plane in Washington Tuesday, Gates said the purpose of his trip was to listen to U.S. commanders and Iraqis to "see what I can learn."

Mr. Bush, working to recraft his strategy in Iraq, said Tuesday that he plans to increase the size of the U.S. military so it can fight a long-term war against terrorism.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Mr. Bush said he has asked Gates to report back to him with a plan to increase ground forces.

Gates and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were scheduled to meet with U.S. and Iraqi military and political leaders.

As they flew to Iraq, the Los Angeles Times reported that Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, has submitted plans to retire and will leave his post in March.

Abizaid was among those expected to meet with Gates and Pace in Baghdad. His four-year term as chief of the Central Command, or Centcom, was to have ended in July but a spokesman earlier had said he agreed to stay until "early 2007" at the request of former defense chief Donald H. Rumsfeld. The Times quoted one recently retired Army general as saying Abizaid wanted to retire earlier, but was blocked by Rumsfeld.

The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, has indicated in recent months that he also may not stay much beyond the end of this year.

Gates arrived as the U.S.-led coalition was handing over security responsibilities in Iraq's northern Najaf province to Iraqi forces.

At a ceremony, Iraq's national security adviser, Mouwafak al-Rubaie, called the transfer a "historical achievement."

Najaf was the third of Iraq's 18 provinces to come under local control. British troops handed over control of southern Muthana province in July, and the Italian military transferred Dhi Qar province to Iraqis in September.

"Iraqis are taking the lead because they are more efficient, more capable and the people of this land. The coming days will show the high credibility of the Iraqi government in its dealing with security," al-Rubaie said.

In other developments:

  • Iraqi authorities executed 13 men by hanging Tuesday after they were convicted of murder and kidnapping. In a rare move that came amid chaotic violence sweeping the capital, the Iraqi government recorded and distributed graphic television footage of the convicts in the moments before they were put to death. After the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, American officials deemed the Iraqi courts incapable of rendering a fair decision, and banned the death penalty. Iraq reinstated it after the transfer of sovereignty in June 2004 so they would have the option of executing Saddam for crimes committed by his regime, and citing the need to quell the insurgency.

  • A suicide car bomber slammed into a police checkpoint in Baghdad on Wednesday, killing seven people and injuring 27, police said. Three policemen were among those killed, and seven were among the injured. The attack occurred in the Jadriyah district of the Iraqi capital.

  • At least half a dozen other explosions were heard, some in the area of the Green Zone, where Iraq's parliament and the U.S. and British embassies are based. The U.S. military said it had no information on the blasts.

  • U.S.-led forces captured a senior al Qaeda leader who was responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths and housed foreign fighters who carried out suicide bombings, the U.S. military said Wednesday. The leader, who was not identified, was arrested in a raid in Mosul on Dec. 14, the military said.

  • With murder the leading cause, at least 32 journalists have been killed in Iraq in 2006, the highest one-year toll ever in a single country, the Committee to Protect Journalists said in a report Wednesday. The Middle East nation, torn by war and bloody sectarian violence, was the world's most dangerous for the news media for the fourth straight year, according to CPJ, a New York- based advocacy group.

  • A former Iraqi minister said Tuesday he broke out of a Baghdad jail over the weekend because he feared he was about to be assassinated and claimed he had already slipped out of the country, the New York Times reported on its Web site. The Times said it had a lengthy phone conversation Ayham al-Samaraie, who escaped from jail on Sunday. Al-Samaraie, who holds dual American and Iraqi citizenship, said he had been tipped off that he was about to be killed and did not trust police to protect him.

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