Gates: Despite tensions, Iraqis, U.S. troops no longer 'boss' or 'occupier'
BAGHDAD — Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday hailed the progress made in implementing a new security agreement, which has led to the formal withdrawal of U.S. troops from cities but has sparked tension between Iraqi and American soldiers.
"The feedback I got here was that the agreement has changed the relationship . . . in a positive way," Gates said after a briefing in southern Iraq. "Nobody is the boss or the occupier."
He said the two armies, instead, are headed to treat each other as equal partners.
Gen. Raymond Odierno, top U.S. commander in Iraq, said there have been some "growing pains" in some places, such as the capital of Baghdad and Mosul, as troops adjust to the new rules governing U.S. forces.
"What happened is that you had some [Iraqi] commanders who did not do a good interpretation of the agreement," he said.
U.S. and Iraqi troops in Baghdad and Mosul have struggled on several occasions in the past month over how to interpret the security agreement, which restricts U.S. operations inside the cities.
In one instance, an Iraqi commander tried to detain U.S. troops after a shootout in suburban Baghdad that left three civilians dead. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki later said that the Iraqi officer was "out of line."
This month, about 500 U.S. and Iraqi commanders took part in a video teleconference, in which Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby, who oversees daily U.S. operations in Iraq, and the head of Iraqi ground forces talked through the various points of disagreement regarding the new security pact.
"All the commanders were allowed to bring up their issues," Odierno said. "They resolved many of them, and they then published an order. . . . And since that time, we've had significantly fewer issues."
Gates played down recent tensions between U.S. and Iraqi forces, saying it is "remarkable" there have been few incidents in Baghdad and other cities.
The disagreements are the latest sign of the increasing willingness of Iraqi leaders to exercise greater independence in recent weeks.
U.S. commanders said the pullout of American troops from cities hasn't led to more attacks by insurgent groups. Rather, the withdrawal has allowed U.S. forces to focus more on the areas surrounding Baghdad that traditionally have been places where insurgents have sought refuge. And the withdrawals have freed up troops to work with Iraqis on securing the country's border with Iran, military officials said.
Odierno said that if trends continue, overall attacks in July would be lower than in June, when there were a few high-profile bombings just prior to the U.S. pullout from cities.
The general also said insurgent groups now need more time to pull off large-scale bombings.
"The time between attacks is much longer," Odierno said.