WASHINGTON, Aug. 2 — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday that he was discouraged by the resignation of the Sunnis from Iraq’s cabinet and that the Bush administration might have misjudged the difficulty of achieving reconciliation between Iraq’s sectarian factions.
In one of his bluntest assessments of the progress of the administration’s Iraq strategy, Mr. Gates said, “I think the developments on the political side are somewhat discouraging at the national level.” He said that despite the Sunni withdrawal, “my hope is that it can all be patched back together.”
Mr. Gates made the remarks to reporters traveling on his plane while returning to Washington after a trip to the Middle East that included stops in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates but did not include a visit to Iraq.
Mr. Gates gave little indication whether he was leaning toward recommending a shift in the administration’s strategy next month, when officials are planning to review whether progress has been achieved by sending nearly 30,000 additional American troops to Iraq.
He acknowledged that when the Bush administration decided to send the additional troops, “We probably all underestimated the depth of the mistrust and how difficult it would be for these guys to come together on legislation, which, let’s face it, is not some kind of secondary issue.”
He was referring to the failure of Iraq’s Parliament to pass legislation distributing oil revenue, setting a timetable for provincial elections and easing employment restrictions on former Baath Party members — measures that the Bush administration considers crucial for reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites.
While critical of Iraq’s government, Mr. Gates said the security situation was “more encouraging than I would have expected three or four months ago.”
He cited progress in reducing violence in Anbar Province, formerly a center of anti-American hostility, and at persuading mostly Sunni tribal sheiks in some areas of the country to cooperate in security operations against Sunni insurgents — a development he called “in some respects unexpected.”
He said the administration would have to balance the relative lack of political progress with the somewhat encouraging security trends when it makes the September review, which will include reports from Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker.
Several American military commanders in Iraq have said that the additional troops will be needed in Iraq into next year. Some critics of the Iraq policy, including several Democrats running for president, have called for troop withdrawals and shifting to a strategy that focuses on counterterrorism, instead of on protecting Iraqis.
In justifying the need for a temporary increase in troop levels earlier this year, administration officials said more forces devoted to protecting Iraqis would give Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s government “breathing room” to achieve the political reconciliation and progress on legislation.
But Mr. Gates offered a slightly different formulation on Thursday, arguing that political progress would come when Iraqi Army and police units proved able to take over primary responsibility for maintaining security in areas now largely controlled by American troops.
“I think the key is, not only establishing the security, but being able to hold on to those areas and for Iraqi Army and police to be able to provide the continuity of security over time,” he said. “It’s under that umbrella I think progress will be made at the national level.” Mr. Gates would not give a timetable.
As he has traveled around the Middle East this week, Mr. Gates has stressed that whenever the United States begins reducing troops in Iraq, it must be careful not to leave the country in chaos, which he warned could spread throughout the region.
Completing a four-day visit through the Middle East, Mr. Gates stopped briefly in Abu Dhabi on Thursday for talks with Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates. On Wednesday, he took a helicopter tour of the port in Kuwait that would be vital for removing military equipment when a withdrawal does begin in Iraq.
Earlier, he stopped in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
In addition to asking for help from Arab allies in stabilizing Iraq, Mr. Gates asked officials to toughen their enforcement of United Nations sanctions against Iran and discussed arms sales with each of the countries, part of an estimated $20 billion the United States wants to provide to Persian Gulf countries.
A senior Defense Department official said Mr. Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who joined him in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, stressed what they called the need for Arab governments to support the administration’s effort to isolate Iran, diplomatically and economically.
“There’s not really room for bystanders here,” Mr. Gates said.
Iraqi Boy Loses 5 Brothers
BAGHDAD, Aug. 2 — A weeping boy was found Thursday next to the bodies of his five brothers after they were kidnapped and killed by insurgents near Kirkuk, the police said.
The boy’s brothers, all adults, appeared to have been ambushed as they were on their way to paint a police station in Rashad, near Kirkuk, the oil-rich northern city where there have been tensions between Kurds, Turkmens and Sunni Arabs.
The boy, who was unharmed, was apparently brought along to help his brothers, Brig. Gen. Sarhat Qadir said. Many Iraqis who work with the Americans or the Iraqi government’s security forces are sought out by extremists, who accuse them of being collaborators.
Large areas in the western parts of Baghdad were without running water on Thursday, in 120-degree summer heat. Officials blamed their inability to keep the water-purification and pumping stations going for the electricity shortages.
Many Baghdad residents complain that they have water for only a few hours a day, and sometimes no electricity at all.