MILWAUKEE — As the Obama administration prepared to hail the formal end of combat operations in Iraq, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned Tuesday that despite the drawdown, the U.S. military effort in Iraq is not over.
Gates' speech to the 92nd American Legion National Convention in Milwaukee was the first of many this week by top administration officials designed signal the end of major combat operations in Iraq and a renewed effort in Afghanistan.
"This is not a time for premature victory parades or self-congratulation, even as we reflect with pride on what our troops and their Iraqi partners have accomplished," Gates told the American Legion in Milwaukee. "We still have a job to do and responsibilities there."
Gates' voiced quivered as he gave the numbers of killed and wounded in Iraq — 4,427 and 34,268.
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The Obama administration is seeking to show it is sticking to a campaign promise to wind down the war in Iraq but not abandoning Iraq or leaving before its pols and security forces can govern the country.
Tonight, President Obama will deliver an Oval Office address about the future U.S. effort in Iraq, only his second address from there since taking office. And Vice President Biden is already in Baghdad for a military ceremony Wednesday handing over responsibility from Gen. Raymond T. Odierno to Gen. Lloyd Austin.
Yet, the United States' decision to downgrade to 50,000 troops to train their Iraqi counterparts comes amid great uncertainty over the future of Iraq's government and the capability of its security forces against an insurgency to trying to resurge.
"I am not saying that all is, or necessarily will be, well in Iraq," Gates said.
There are no signs that Iraq is any closer to forming a government six months after its election. Current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has proposed a coalition government where he is still the head of state, but with a weakened role and more power sharing with his political adversaries. Still others are suggesting Iraq should conduct new elections.
And last week, there was an onslaught of violence as insurgents launched attacks, car bombs and suicide bombings in 14 cities; American officials insist that the Iraqi forces can handle their own security.
Regardless, the United States and Iraqi government have agreed to stick to a status of forces agreement negotiated in 2008 that calls for the end of combat operations today and the full withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of 2011.
Gates noted that despite such attacks violence is at its lowest levels since the early days of the war seven years ago. And he said Odierno has not ordered an air strike in six months. The remaining U.S. troops instead will train the Iraqi Army and help rebuild the Iraqi Air Force.
Even as Gates warned that the U.S. effort continues in Iraq, he said there is an "invigorated and reinforced Afghanistan effort." As in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan has a withdrawal timeline, in that case July 2011, when the administration has vowed to begin drawing down troops.
Gates said the latest strategy in place can show results by then.
"General Petraeus believes, I believe, and the President believes, that we now have the right strategy in Afghanistan, a strategy that represents our best chance of achieving our goals essential to the safety of the United States," Gates said Tuesday.
He did not describe the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan over the last nine years, including the past three years in which he has been the secretary of defense.
In the past, Gates has said that Iraq took resources away from Afghanistan and has pushed for more NATO forces. Since 2008, he has called for several "course corrections" to the strategy, often including sending more troops. There have been three generals in two years there, and the U.S. has increased its troop presence by nearly 300 percent during his three-year tenure.