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US Defense Secretary Rejects Any Rapid Pullout From Iraq

Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he does not expect a swift pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq regardless of the conclusions of a planned September evaluation of the ongoing build-up of U.S. forces in the country. VOA's Michael Bowman reports, Gates spoke with reporters hours after telling U.S. senators that the United States could potentially begin withdrawing troops from Iraq later in the year.

Testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee Wednesday, Secretary Gates said that if the security situation in Iraq improves and progress is achieved, a reduction in U.S. forces could be considered. He was quick to warn, however, of dire consequences for Iraq and the United States if a withdrawal were to take place "with Iraq in chaos."

Later, at a Pentagon news briefing with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, Gates expanded upon his earlier statements with regard an upcoming evaluation of the current troop surge in Iraq.

"I suspect that whatever the evaluation in September [concludes, it] will not lead to precipitous decisions or actions, but would point us in a new direction - either because the surge is working, or because the evaluation is that it is not [working]," he said.

In fact, General Pace said the Pentagon has no contingency plan for bringing all U.S. forces home at once.

As the two men spoke, members of the Democratic-led House of Representatives were crafting legislation to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through July, when Congress would have the option of cutting off money if conditions in Iraq do not improve.

President Bush has signaled he would veto any short term funding bill, just as he vetoed an earlier bill that contained a timeline for a troop pullout from Iraq.

Asked what he hopes will emerge from the legislature, Gates said he would like to see broad bipartisan agreement on two points.

"That it is important to defend this country on the extremists' ten yard line [close to their home] and not on our 10-yard line [close to the United States]," he said. "The other part of it is that, assuming that we have some kind of long-term strategic agreement with the Iraqi government that acknowledges their sovereignty and so on, but still provides the assistance of some level of U.S. troops in Iraq for a protracted period of time."

Gates said that even after the bulk of U.S. forces have left Iraq, the United States will have to provide some sort of "stabilizing presence" for the country in whatever form is deemed appropriate at that time.

Turning to Iran's influence in Iraq, General Pace noted an increase in explosive weaponry being deployed against U.S. forces and said that, to the best of his knowledge, such armaments are all coming from Iran. But he added that it is not possible to pinpoint exactly who within Iran is providing the explosives, and cautioned against jumping to any conclusions beyond the known facts.