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Gates: Baghdad Operation Not 'Last Chance' to Prevail Against Insurgents

Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the joint U.S.-Iraqi military operation underway in Baghdad is not the last chance to prevail against insurgents. But in a second day of testimony on Capitol Hill, Gates said U.S. military planners are preparing for the possibility that the new effort won't work. VOA's Dan Robinson is on Capitol Hill.

Secretary Gates was asked by lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee to assess the Baghdad security operation which is in its early stages.

His response echoed testimony before a Senate panel the previous day, emphasizing that the effort is being implemented gradually.

Gates again quoted a report from the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General George Casey, who said "so far, so good" regarding the performance of Iraqi military units.

And he had this exchange with the Democratic committee chairman Congressman Ike Skelton.

"Bottom line question, what if this doesn't work," said Skeleton. "What are the alternatives for this country?

"I have said that I don't think this is the so-called last chance," Gates replied. "As I have said, we hope this will work, we are funding it to work, we are resourcing it to work, we are sending the troops forward. But I would be irresponsible if I did not have people looking at contingencies in the event that this does not work, and if in two months or so, three months or whatever period of time, people turn to me and say now what do we do?"

Lawmakers had another opportunity to inquire about the operational guidelines U.S. forces are following with Iraqi counterparts.

Reiterating U.S. forces will retain their own lines of command, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Peter Pace had this exchange with Hawaii Democrat Neil Abercrombie.

"If an Iraqi soldier, if an Iraqi sergeant says this is where we are going, the Americans follow, is that correct," said Abercrombie.

"No sir that is not correct," Pace said.

"Then how is it going to work," asked Abercrombie.

"Sir, it is going to work this way," Pace said. "The Iraqi commander will decided what he wants to do. He will go do it with Iraqi troops. If they need support, he will ask his embedded U.S. support team for that support. The American commander will decide whether or not that support is appropriate, and he will decide whether or not it is available."

Democratic Congressman Tim Andrews says there is ongoing skepticism that Iraqi troops are committed to the fight.

"That the problem really is not training, the problem is the loyalties of the troops, that their principal loyalties are to their tribe, or their sect, or their warlord, as opposed to the Iraqi government," he said.

Republican Duncan Hunter suggests one way to measure the actual combat capabilities of Iraqi troops.

"To rotate all 129 [Iraqi] battalions, over the next year or so, into a three or four month combat operational rotation," he said.

General Pace top says U.S. commanders are already trying to implement this approach with Iraqi commanders.

Committee chairman Skelton repeated his assertion that the temporary U.S. military surge in Baghdad and al-Anbar province is not likely to improve the overall security situation.

Skelton also believes U.S. military commitments in Iraq are hurting the ability of the U.S. to respond effectively to challenges elsewhere in the world.