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Gates Says Iraq Troop Withdrawals Will Probably Continue

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he hopes to pull more American troops out of Iraq after a brief pause in withdrawals in July or August. Gates made his comments en route to Australia, which he says will continue to play a military role in Iraq even though the new Australian government plans to pull its own combat troops out of the country. Naomi Martig reports from VOA's Asia News Center in Hong Kong.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he wants to continue withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq over the next 10 to 12 months.

The current plans call for the Pentagon to withdraw around 20,000 of the more than 155,000 American troops from the country through mid-July. At that point, military commanders are expected to pause while they evaluate the security situation. Gates says he hopes U.S. troop withdrawals will resume after the evaluation.

The defense secretary's comments came as he and Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte were en route to Canberra, where they are due to hold two days of security talks with the new Australian government.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd promised during last year's election campaign to withdraw all of Australia's combat troops from Iraq. Canberra recently confirmed that it will withdraw its 575 combat troops by the middle of this year, around one-third of its total military contingent in and around Iraq.

Gates told reporters Friday he is expecting continuity in U.S.-Australian relations despite Mr. Rudd's withdrawal plans. Gates says the Australians are in talks with the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, over their future role in Iraq.

"They are still going to have a number of people in Iraq and in terms of the role they might continue to play and the training and other kinds of activities like that," said Gates. "So that's a dialogue right now that is going on between the Australians and General Petraeus."

Australia was a major supporter of the U.S.-led war on terror under former Prime Minister John Howard, whose party was defeated late last year in parliamentary elections.

Mr. Rudd has said that despite policy differences with the Bush Administration, he intends to maintain the traditionally strong U.S.-Australian relationship. Australian officials have said their troop withdrawal from Iraq will be conducted in a manner that will minimize problems for the U.S.-led military coalition there.