BAGHDAD, Iraq - New Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Baghdad on Wednesday, armed with a mandate from President Bush to help forge a new Iraq war strategy. He made the unannounced trip to the battlefront just two days after taking over at the Pentagon.
Gates went in pursuit of advice from his top military commanders on a new strategy for an increasingly unpopular, costly and chaotic war - one he has conceded the U.S. is not winning. His trip so soon after taking office underscored the Bush administration's effort to be seen as energetically seeking a new path in the conflict.
"The whole purpose is to go out, listen to the commanders, talk to the Iraqis, and see what I can learn," Gates told reporters as he boarded his aircraft in Washington on Tuesday.
The visit comes in advance of a long-expected shuffle in commanders.
Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, has submitted plans to go ahead with a retirement that is months overdue, according to a statement Wednesday from the Central Command in Tampa, Fla. His three-year term as chief of the Central Command was to have ended in July but a spokesman said he agreed to stay until "early 2007" at the request of former defense chief Donald H. Rumsfeld.
The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, has indicated in recent months that he also may not stay much beyond the end of this year.
The changes, both rumored before Rumsfeld's announced resignation and Gates' nomination, would allow Gates to choose his own commanders for Iraq, the issue he's said will be his top priority as secretary.
In Baghdad, Gates and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were scheduled to meet with U.S. and Iraqi military and political leaders.
Shortly before Gates' arrival, the U.S. military in Iraq announced that a senior al-Qaida leader had been arrested in Mosul on Dec. 14 and that security responsibilities in Iraq's northern Najaf province were handed over to Iraqi forces earlier Wednesday. It was not clear whether the announcements were timed to coincide with Gates' visit.
On Tuesday, Bush told The Washington Post he is ready to boost the overall size of the U.S. military, acknowledging he agrees with recent complaints by top generals that the forces have been stretched too thin by the worldwide campaign against terrorists. He used no figures, but said he was asking Gates to produce a plan for the expansion.
Gates' trip to Iraq comes with the Bush administration under intense pressure from Congress and the American public to sort through options for a war that has caused the deaths of more than 2,940 U.S. troops and cost more than $300 billion. More than three-and-a-half years after the U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, the conflict now involves insurgents and bloodshed between Sunnis and Shiites that seems on the cusp of civil war.
Bush is considering choices ranging from a short-term surge of thousands of troops to bring the escalating violence in Baghdad and Anbar province under control, to removing combat U.S. forces and accelerating the training and equipping of Iraqi security forces.
But Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said from Damascas, where he met with Syrian President Bashar Assad, that the violence in Iraq could only be resolved by a "comprehensive political reconciliation" between Shia and Sunni factions. Kerry has been on a tour of the Mideast.
"The key is not troops. More troops won't resolve the problem of Iraq," Kerry told NBC's "Today" show. "You'll create a larger, more prominent target in the absence of the kind of political solution that is needed."
There are about 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, more than a third of whom have combat duties.
Gates' visit also follows the release of a grim Pentagon report that revealed a 22 percent increase in violence in Iraq since August, and a steady decline in confidence Iraqis have in their government.
He went there earlier this year as a member of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan commission that spent nine months assessing the situation in Iraq. It produced recommendations that include phasing out most U.S. combat troops by early 2008, increasing military training for Iraqis and including Iran and Syria in regional efforts to end the violence.
Rumsfeld resigned last month after Democrats swept elections to win control of the House and Senate next year. Their triumph was powered by an American electorate that many believe have lost patience with the conflict.
Associated Press writer Pauline Jelinek contributed to this report from Washington.