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US Defense Chief Sees Long-Term US Military Presence in Iraq


Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he envisions a much smaller, but long-term, presence in Iraq of about five combat brigades - a quarter of the 20 U.S. combat brigades currently deployed in the country. At a Pentagon news conference Thursday, he gave no timetable for reaching that level. VOA's Cindy Saine reports from Washington.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Senate Appropriations Committee Wednesday he envisioned "in his head" a long-term U.S. force in Iraq that would be only a quarter of the current number of combat brigades.

Speaking to Pentagon reporters Thursday, Gates made clear he was trying to reassure Americans that he was thinking of a modest long-term U.S. presence.

"There's been a lot of concern out there that a long-term presence might be 130,000 troops, and I was just trying to put in context at least in my mind, what I considered to be sort of, notionally the size of an enduring presence," he said.

Gates said the smaller force would have a very different mission, but would continue to go after al-Qaida in Iraq and would help the Iraqi forces. He stressed that there has been no detailed planning by the Pentagon about what level of forces will be required on a long-term basis.

"Well I had the luxury of giving you that number off the top ... of giving the Congress that number off the top of my head since nobody has actually done any analysis on it. And so I didn't have to go against any more thoughtful consideration."

A combat brigade has 3,500 to 4,500 troops, leaving a minimum of 17,500 U.S. combat troops in Iraq under the terms the defense secretary described. The total American force would likely end up being much larger, because of the need for support troops. But Gates refused to speculate about exact troop numbers or timetables. "The last thing I am going to do is give a number."

Gates said for such a reduction in forces to occur, violence in Iraq would have to get down to a certain level. He said President Bush has already moved on drawing down forces and on a change of mission, and the real issue now is the pacing of the drawdown.

The president and Congress are heading for another showdown on Iraq - this time over the nearly $190 billion the Pentagon had requested for 2008 to finance the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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