US Defense Secretary says Iraq progress could mean troop reduction

( LatWp ) - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Wednesday that if the current U.S. military strategy showed signs of success by autumn, the Pentagon may be able to reduce the number of U.S. forces in Iraq.

In testimony before the Senate, Gates acknowledged that his position apparently contradicted comments by the No. 2 military commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who has recommended that the troop build up continue into 2008.

The point of the new strategy, Gates said, was to reduce violence in order to jump-start political progress within the Iraqi government and allow the U.S. to begin to reduce its forces.

``I think if we see some very positive progress and it looks like things are headed in the right direction, then that's the point at which I think we can begin to consider reducing some of these forces,'' Gates said.

Gates said he opposes a new Democratic proposal to fund the war on a short-term basis through July, and a White House spokesman said President Bush would veto such a measure.

But Gates held a firm line against suggestions that the troop buildup be extended into 2008, saying a review in September would help determine future steps. Throughout his testimony to the Senate Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee, Gates sounded a bipartisan tone and sought to accommodate Republicans and Democrats.

Under questioning from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Gates said he believed there would be a long-term U.S. presence in the Middle East. But he emphasized that the size of the American force in Iraq needed to be acceptable to both parties.

``My view would be that it's very likely the United States will be required to have some level of troop presence in Iraq for some period of time,'' Gates said. ``But it has to be at a level, in my view, that can attract bipartisan support.''

At a news conference later in the day, he indicated that the eventual U.S. troop level could be as low as 25,000 and said he would like to see a bipartisan accord similar to the agreement on Soviet containment that existed during the Cold War. The current troop level is 146,000.

Gates said he believed there could be broad agreement on two points: the necessity of defending the United States overseas and the need to keep a small number of troops in Iraq to preserve stability.

``Whether that's 25,000 troops or what that number is -- I have no idea,'' Gates said. ``My personal view is this would ... have a stabilizing effect, and I think it's something that we need to talk about.''

In his Senate testimony, Gates repeatedly emphasized that the planned evaluation of the Bush administration's new strategy in September was not ``preordained.'' The assessment, he suggested, would provide a determination of whether to change strategies, continue the buildup, or reduce forces.

The U.S. military will not be able to eliminate violence, Gates said, but can reduce violence to enable the Iraqi political process to work. Gates said the Iraqis had lived up to their commitments to provide a share of the forces. But he said the security picture so far remained mixed.

``We're not going to get the level of violence down to zero,'' Gates said. ``The question is whether the level of violence is such that the political process can go forward in Iraq, and that then sets the stage for us to begin drawing down our troops.''

The issue of the Pentagon strategy review became charged after Odierno, who heads up day-to-day military operations in Iraq, was quoted in a Washington Post report as saying the ``surge needs to go through the beginning of next year, for sure.''

At the news conference, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Odierno had misspoken. He said Odierno intended to say only that the U.S. military had the ability to continue the buildup through next spring, and did not intend to argue that the troop increase should continue.

But Odierno has indicated in the past that he is open to extending the current troop build up into next year. Last month, he said he could recommend that the temporary ``surge'' be replaced by a more permanent ``plus-up.''

Outside of the hearing room, lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol began work on compromises on the war funding bill.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, a moderate Maine Republican, picked up a Democratic co-sponsor for her proposal to require the U.S. commander to begin planning a withdrawal if the Iraqi government fails to meet benchmarks later this year. The proposal by Snowe and Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., marks the first bipartisan withdrawal plan to emerge from either chamber of Congress.

In the House, Democrats pushed their proposal to fund the war through July. The proposal could face a vote Thursday and would require a second vote in July to continue war funding. Before the second vote, the president would be required to submit a report to Congress on progress by the Iraqi government on a series of political benchmarks.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said Wednesday that Bush would veto that measure, drawing criticism from the measure's sponsors.

``If the White House would get off their pedestal ... they'd find out that only 25 percent of the people are with them,'' said Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa.

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