New U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Baghdad on Wednesday, armed with a mandate from U.S. President George W. Bush to help forge a new Iraq war strategy. He made the unannounced trip to the battlefront just two days after taking over at the Pentagon.
Gates went in pursuit of advice from his top military commanders on a new strategy for an increasingly unpopular, costly and chaotic war one he has conceded the U.S. is not winning. His trip so soon after taking office underscored the Bush administration's effort to be seen as energetically seeking a new path in the conflict.
"The whole purpose is to go out, listen to the commanders, talk to the Iraqis, and see what I can learn," Gates told reporters as he boarded his aircraft in Washington on Tuesday.
The visit comes in advance of a long-expected shuffle in commanders.
Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, has submitted plans to go ahead with a retirement that is months overdue, according to a statement Wednesday from the Central Command in Tampa, Fla. His three-year term as chief of the Central Command was to have ended in July but a spokesman said he agreed to stay until "early 2007" at the request of former defense chief Donald H. 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.
The changes, both rumored before Rumsfeld's announced resignation and Gates' nomination, would allow Gates to choose his own commanders for Iraq, the issue he's said will be his top priority as secretary, reports AP.
In Baghdad, 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.
Shortly before Gates' arrival, the U.S. military in Iraq announced that a senior al-Qaida leader had been arrested in Mosul on Dec. 14 and that security responsibilities in Iraq's northern Najaf province were handed over to Iraqi forces earlier Wednesday. It was not clear whether the announcements were timed to coincide with Gates' visit.