Gates says turning around Iraq was biggest task
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said Monday that turning around the war in Iraq represents his most important accomplishment during more than four years at the Pentagon.
Speaking to Russian naval officers on a visit to Saint Petersburg, Gates said, "I think for me, being able to resolve satisfactorily the worst challenge that I faced when I took this job in December 2006, I have to consider it the most significant event."
Gates said Iraq still confronted serious problems but would endure as a single state under democratic rule, allowing for the withdrawal of US troops.
"And getting our forces out of Iraq, I think, and having an Iraq -- as many difficulties as they face -- but an Iraq that I think fundamentally will stick together as a country and will preserve their democracy is a very big event," he said when asked to describe the highlights of his tenure.
Gates, who says he will step down later this year, took over as Pentagon chief in 2006 at a time of spiraling sectarian violence in Iraq and rising opposition to the war among Americans.
A strategy endorsed by former president George W. Bush involving a "surge" of US reinforcements helped reverse the deterioration in Iraq, though skeptics say other factors were at work, including a shift by tribal leaders who grew disillusioned with Al-Qaeda-linked insurgents.
Less than 50,000 US troops remain in Iraq, with a security agreement between Baghdad and Washington requiring that all US forces be withdrawn by the end of 2011.
He spoke only two days after the US military and allies launched missile strikes and bombing raids against Libya's regime, imposing a no-fly zone despite cautious statements by Gates on the risks of another US intervention in the Middle East.
Gates' comments on Iraq, though understated, were unusual for a reserved public figure not given to touting his accomplishments.
But as he nears the end of his tenure, Gates has become more outspoken and delivered a series of speeches reflecting on his experience that present policy lessons for the future.
Gates said that the only thing he will miss about his job are the members of the US armed forces he got to meet as defence secretary.
He said he served eight US presidents over several decades, but "no one has ever impressed me more than our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines that I encounter every day."
"When the time comes for me to leave this job, believe me, that's the only thing that I will miss."
© 2011 AFP