Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday US forces face more tough fighting in Iraq and his top military adviser said the rising level of violence was the “wrong metric” for judging the surge.
The comments by Gates and General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came as the US military reported 14 US soldiers killed in three days of fighting in Iraq.
Pace acknowledged that levels of violence are now higher than they were before the start of a surge in US forces in January, but both he and Gates said it was because more troops are moving against insurgent sanctuaries.
“We certainly hope and pray that that level of casualties will not be sustained, it will not continue,” Gates said. “But they are in the middle of a battle and we just will have to deal with that.”
On Thursday alone, six US soldiers were killed, five of them by a roadside bomb in northeast Baghdad that also killed an Iraqi interpreter and three Iraqi civilians.
The latest deaths raised the US death toll for the month to 59. In May, 120 US troops were killed in fighting, the most in a single month since US and Iraqi troops stormed the insurgent-held city of Fallujah in November 2004.
Pace said “our enemy is going to want to impact the psyche here in the United States with regard to the number of significant incidents that they’re able to pull off and the total numbers of the casualties that they will produce.
“So it is an expectation that this surge is going to result in more contact and, therefore, more casualties,” he said.
Levels of violence are “up a little bit” in June compared to May, he said.
US combat brigades individually are encountering roughly the same number of attacks as before the surge, between five and seven a day, he said. but with five additional brigades in Iraq the overall numbers are up.
But, when asked if commanders expect that the offensive now underway will reduce the violence before a September progress report to Congress, Pace said, “if you try to define this in terms of level of violence, you’ve really put yourself on the wrong metric.”
“It isn’t about X number today, Y number tomorrow, because the enemy gets a chance to vote in that. And he will take a look at what you’re measuring and try to defeat that measurement, so to speak,” he said.
“The metric really should be for Iraqi citizens: Do they feel better about their lives today than they did yesterday? And do they think they’re going to feel better about their lives tomorrow than they do today?”
Gates and Pace also defended alliances struck between US forces and members of Iraqi insurgent groups against Al-Qaeda, even though some of them may recently have fought US troops.
“After all, it’s a strategy that worked extraordinarily well in Al Anbar province, in terms of working with the local tribes and so on,” Gates said.
“And so I think this is trying to get more of the people who have been shooting to stop shooting and work with us,” he said.
He said it was “really the pathway forward, in terms of accomplishing our objective and getting them to work with the Iraqi government.”
Pace disclosed that in addition to tribal leaders in the western al-Anbar province, about 130 Sunni sheiks in the Tikrit area have banded together to fight Al-Qaeda.
He acknowledged the risks of arming such groups.
“But I think the greater risk is in not seizing the opportunities, as they become available,” he said.
In comments published Saturday by Newsweek magazine, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki warned that the US tactic was “dangerous because this will create new militias.”
“I believe that the coalition forces do not know the backgrounds of the tribes,” he said, adding that arming such groups “should be under the control of the (Iraqi) state and we should have guarantees that it will not turn into a militia.”
The press conference was the first time Pace and Gates have appeared together since the secretary’s surprise announcement that the general would not be nominated for a second term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Asked whether he had been treated fairly, Pace said it was “an honor and a privilege” to serve, adding, “I am going to be chairman until midnight on 30 September.”