Defense Secretary Robert Gates has echoed these sentiments, telling an audience at the American Enterprise Institute on May 24 that having US troops remain beyond 2011 “sends a powerful signal to the region that we’re not leaving, that we will continue to play a part. I think it would not be reassuring to Iran, and that’s a good thing,” he added.
As recently as last week, senior US officials predicted that Iraq was poised to become “a political and economic leader in the Middle East.” Colin Kahl, deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, acknowledged, however, that there remain considerable concerns in the Pentagon “about the readiness of the Iraqi government to provide security in Iraq as US forces draw down.”
Mr. Kahl emphasized, too, that terrorists and militias continue to pose a threat throughout the country. In mid-May, three coordinated car bombs killed more than two dozen people in the oil-rich northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, and at the end of May, Al Qaeda conducted a series of attacks in Baghdad that left 14 people dead and dozens wounded, Kahl said in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia on June 1.
The Pentagon has signaled frequently in recent months that if Iraq decides that it wants US troops to stay beyond the 2011 deadline, they must make the request soon “should there be any chance of avoiding irrevocable logistics and operational decisions we must make in the coming weeks,” Mullen said during his April visit to Iraq. “Time is running short for any negotiations to occur.”