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US Defense Chief Criticizes Congress for Short-Term Funding of Wars

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has criticized the U.S. Congress for providing only three months worth of funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The short-term funding means President Bush will have to go back to the Democratic-controlled Congress for more war funding in March. VOA's Cindy Saine reports from Washington.

Congress this week approved $70 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as part of a massive government spending bill. Democratic lawmakers tried over and over again this year to link funding for the war in Iraq to a timeline for bringing U.S. combat troops home. But President Bush threatened to veto the entire spending bill if it included conditions for troop withdrawal, and Democrats do not have enough votes to override a veto.

Secretary Gates said unless Congress approves more funding early next year, the Pentagon will again face the risk of running out of money. He expressed his displeasure to reporters.

"I'm also very concerned that funding the war in fits and starts is requiring us to make short-term plans and short-term decisions, to forego needed actions and to put at risk critical procurement, training and other activities important to deploying a ready and effective force," he said.

Gates said he hopes improving security conditions in Iraq will allow for a continuing drawdown of U.S. troops as planned. But he cautioned that withdrawals depend on the circumstances on the ground, and said there are still challenges ahead.

"The challenge in Iraq will be to sustain the military gains that we have achieved, and in the non-military area, to see what we can do to encourage the achievement of some important legislative actions on the part of the Iraqi government," he said.

Asked about the progress that has been made in efforts to close down the controversial U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Gates was not so optimistic. "The honest answer is that because of some of these legal concerns, some of which are shared by people in both parties on Capitol Hill, there has not been much progress in this respect," he said.

Gates referred to legal questions on what to do with some of the close to 300 suspects detained at Guantanamo if the prison is shut down.

At the end-of-the year-news conference, Gates was also asked about U.S. efforts to find al-Qaida's top leader. "I would say with respect to Osama bin Laden, we are continuing the hunt," he said.

Gates said for now, al-Qaida seems to be focused on Pakistan, on attacking the Pakistani government and Pakistani people.