BAGHDAD, Iraq, Sept. 15, 2008 — -- The violence is down, most of the surge troops are home and Gen. David Petraeus is leaving the country. Now Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the U.S. mission in Iraq is about to change and the real debate is over how quickly U.S. troop levels should go down.
"It's a transition from the focus of the surge brigades and the surge strategy to more Iraqi units in the lead -- us in more of a support and overwatch role," Gates told reporters as he flew to Iraq for his eighth visit here as defense secretary. The "areas in which we are seriously engaged will continue to narrow."
Gates added: "One of the major changes in the debate about Iraq is that it is primarily now about pacing of the drawdowns."
Gates' visit to Iraq corresponds with the departure of Petraeus, who leaves his command Tuesday after presiding over a remarkable turnaround. When Petraeus took command in January 2007, violence In Iraq seemed to be spiraling out of control, and many observers said the country was in the midst of civil war. Today, violence is at its lowest level in nearly four years, the Iraqi security forces are better than they've ever been and the Iraqi economy is on the rebound.
"Gen. Petraeus is clearly the hero of the hour," Gates told reporters as he flew from Washington to Iraq, "but I think all of us would say there are an awful lot of heroes working for him that have actually made this happen."
Gates will participate in a change-of-command ceremony Tuesday as Petraeus is officially replaced by Gen. Raymond Odierno. Petraeus will still play a crucial role in shaping Iraq policy. On Oct. 31, he takes over as the commander of Central Command, which has responsibility for the Middle East.
Odierno has firsthand knowledge of Iraq and the counterinsurgency strategy that helped turn the country around. Until February, he was in Iraq serving as Petraeus' deputy and the day-to-day commander of coalition forces. In that capacity Odierno was responsible for implementing the change in strategy that came with the surge.
Odierno's challenge is to continue to improve security with fewer and fewer American troops. U.S. troop levels in Iraq have come down from a peak of 171,000 during the surge to 146,000 today. President Bush has announced a further reduction of 8,000 troops by February 2009.
Gates said the pace of further reductions should be based on the recommendations of the military commanders.
"Let's continue to listen to the commanders in terms of the pacing of these withdrawals so that we don't put at risk the successes that we've had," Gates said.