MANAMA, Bahrain – Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday that "people are getting impatient" for the Iraqi government to take advantage of improved security and move toward needed political reforms.
Gates met Thursday for an hour with his top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, who described a 60 percent decline in violence in the last six months. Gates had spent two days meeting with Iraqi officials and military commanders in both Baghdad and up north in Mosul. Iraq's government leaders know what they have to do, Gates said.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the presidential council, said Gates, "know that people are getting impatient, and that they need to get on with legislation and sending the message to the rest of their people that they can work together. My hope is that that will produce some results fairly soon in some of these key legislative areas."
Gates also said he comes away from his Iraq visit feeling "very good about the direction of things in the security arena" as well as the progress being made by local tribal leaders and provincial governments to quash violence in their communities.
Leaders on the national level, he said, are feeling pressure to match that local progress.
While Petraeus described the security gains in parts of Iraq, he acknowledged there are still significant problem areas. Those include the north, where some al-Qaida activity is on the rise.
But overall, he said that maintaining security is easier than establishing it, and the gains in Baghdad give him the flexibility to boost military efforts in other regions that are still rocked by violence.
Armed with charts showing that as of Wednesday, weekly attacks and Iraqi civilian deaths have plunged to levels not seen here since early 2006, Petraeus said the reduction lets him make force adjustments to address remaining problem areas, which would include northern Iraq.
Speaking to reporters at the U.S. military's Camp Victory, he said the improved security is due to a number of factors including a "a reduction in some of the signature attacks that are associated with weapons provided by Iran," as well as a cease-fire called by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr that he said had a particularly noticeable impact on what had been one of the most violent areas of Baghdad.
And he said there has been a "reduction in some of the signature attacks" associated with insurgents using Iranian weapons, including deadly armor-piercing rounds.
But, both he and Gates said that it is too soon to tell what has caused the drop, or if Iran is living up to its promise to the Iraqi government to try and stem the movement of arms and terrorist into Iraq.
"I think that is still an open question," said Gates, who spoke to reporters after he toured the USS Vicksburg, a U.S. Navy guided-missile cruiser that has been patrolling in the Arabian Gulf, but was docked here. "They clearly have made some commitments to the government of Iraq and I think we're waiting to see. "
He said it is too soon to tell if the decline is due to a deliberate policy change by the Iranians or to the coalition and Iraqi military's efforts to disrupt the networks and find more weapons caches.
Gates will be attending a regional security conference here in Manama, and he said he expects that "Iranian behavior in a number of areas will clearly come up during the conversations."
Petraeus also noted that the military has detained individuals as recently as October who were trained by Iranians, evidence that the instruction has continued.
The general, who is scheduled to give Congress an update next March on progress in Iraq and map out some plans for U.S. force levels down the road, refused to offer too much optimism.
"Nobody says anything about turning a corner, seeing lights at the end of tunnels, any of those other phrases," said Petraeus. "You just keep your head down and keep moving."
He said that around Thanksgiving commanders looked back at violence levels a year ago, and six months ago, and found a declining line in which violence had declined from a time when hundreds of Iraqis were killed and injured and US troops took heavy losses in a number of horrific attacks, to a time of still somewhat steady but less deadly attacks, to a day last month when there were just 45-50 attacks.
The general has overseen the military's build up in Iraq this year, as force levels jumped to 20 combat brigades, with more than 180,000 troops, during certain times when some of the units overlapped as they moved in and out of the country.
"There's nobody in uniform who is doing victory dances in the end zone," said Petraeus, saying it will require more tough work against a very dangerous adversary.