Gates, on farewell visit, urges Iraq decision on follow-on U.S. force

Laura Rozen

Defense Secretary Bob Gates, visiting U.S. troops in Baghdad Thursday, told them it would likely be his final visit to Iraq in the job.

"This will probably be my last one," Gates told U.S. soldiers at Camp Victory, the Associated Press's Robert Burns reports.

Recalling some 14 trips he's made to Iraq since becoming Defense Secretary in 2006, a sometimes emotional Gates thanked the soldiers and said it has been his biggest privilege to serve with them.

Though he has not publicly revealed his exact departure date, Gates has been expected to leave some time this summer. The Envoy first reported that CIA Director Leon Panetta may be tapped to succeed Gates, though the Obama administration has not confirmed its choice, and a CIA spokesman said Thursday that Panetta "isn't seeking any other job" and hasn't been asked "by the President" to take on a different role. (Whether he'd been sounded out by others in the White House was not disclosed.)

After a stop in Saudi Arabia Wednesday to try to repair strained ties, Gates is on a two-day visit to Iraq, where the U.S. currently has approximately 47,000 forces, down from a height of near 150,000 in 2007.

U.S. troops are due to withdraw entirely from Iraq by the end of the year unless Iraqi leaders ask some number to stay on. But Gates said Thursday the Iraqi government needs to decide "pretty quickly" if it wants a continued U.S.-force presence after 2011.

"We are willing to have a presence beyond (2011), but we've got a lot of commitments," Gates said, according to the Associated Press. "So if folks here are going to want us to have a presence, we're going to need to get on with it pretty quickly in terms of our planning."

"I think there is interest in having a continuing presence," he said, adding, however, that "the politics are such that we'll just have to wait and see because the initiative ultimately has to come from the Iraqis."

Gates worried that a looming government shutdown could delay paychecks to soldiers, but assured them they would eventually be paid even if political negotiations in Washington are unable to avert a shutdown.

"You will be paid," Gates told troops who'd assembled to ask him questions at the U.S. base near Baghdad.

He later told reporters he understood the difficulties and anxiety delayed checks would cause troops and their families, and how much it bothered him. "When I start to think of the inconvenience that it's going to cause these kids and a lot of their families, even a half paycheck delayed can be a problem for them."

(Defense Secretary Robert Gates talks with troops from the U.S. Army 25th Infantry Division from Hawaii and answers their questions during a visit at Camp Victory Thursday April 7, 2011 in Baghdad, Iraq. Gates meeting with military and civilian leaders during what he described as possibly his last trip to Iraq as defense secretary.: Chip Somodevilla/Pool/AP Photo.)