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New US defence chief on surprise visit to Iraq

Robert Gates was losing little time to make an on-the-ground assessment of the situation in war-torn Iraq.

india Updated: Dec 20, 2006 16:07 IST

New US Defence Secretary Robert Gates made a surprise visit to Baghdad on Wednesday to consult with US military commanders and Iraqi leaders, just two days after being sworn in.

Gates was losing little time to make an on-the-ground assessment of the situation in war-torn Iraq amid growing concern about the sharply deteriorating security conditions there.

"The whole purpose is to go out, listen to the commanders, talk to the Iraqis, see what I can learn," he told reporters traveling with him.

His goal, he said, was to "learn a lot".

At his swearing-in ceremony on Monday, he warned that a US failure in Iraq would be a "calamity"

He replaced Donald Rumsfeld, the architect of the Iraq war who resigned under fire after nearly six years at the helm.

"All of us want to find a way to bring Americans sons and daughters home again," Gates said.

"But as the president has made clear we simply cannot afford to fail in the Middle East.

"Failure in Iraq at this juncture would be a calamity that would haunt our nation, impair our credibility and endanger Americans for decades to come," he said.

Debate is currently raging over whether an additional 30,000 US troops should be deployed to Iraq in a new push to get sectarian violence under control as responsibility for security is handed off to Iraqis.

US troop levels in Iraq have dipped down to 129,000 over the past week but they have generally hovered around 140,000.

Plummeting public support for the Iraq war at home has spurred a major strategy review by US President George W Bush, who announced Rumsfeld's resignation the day after a crushing Republican defeat in mid-term elections.

After meeting with US military chiefs last week, Bush said he was putting off a decision on the way forward until early January, giving Gates some time to get his feet on the ground.

Gates is a former member of a blue ribbon panel that recommended the withdrawal of most US combat forces by early 2008 as security responsibilities are rapidly shifted to Iraqis assisted by US advisers.

After being tapped to replace Rumsfeld, Gates dropped out of the group led by former secretary of state James Baker and former representative Lee Hamilton, and did not join in its recommendations.

Bush has said he chose Gates, who served as CIA director from 1991 to 1993, because he wanted "fresh eyes" on the Iraq problem.

First Published: Dec 20, 2006 16:07 IST