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US Defense Secretary Comfortable with Obama's Iraq Plan, With Proper Pacing

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has been reappointed to serve in the Obama administration, says he is comfortable with the president-elect's desire for a rapid withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq, as long as the pace of the drawdown is regulated, at least in part, by security conditions in the coming months. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon on Secretary Gates' first news conference since he was reappointed on Monday.

Secretary Gates noted that he is in a unique position - the first defense secretary to stay on from one administration to another since the position was created 60 years ago. But he said his connection to President Bush's Iraq policy, which President-elect Obama opposed, will not make it difficult for him to work in the new administration.

Gates said the situation in Iraq has changed dramatically in the last year, with better security and now a bilateral agreement to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraqi cities by next June, and from the entire country by the end of 2011. But he is not abandoning his view that the U.S. withdrawal should be related to security conditions.

"I still think the pacing needs to be seen in the context of what's going on, both in terms of the deadlines we've agreed to and in terms of the situation on the ground," he said.

Gates says the president-elect has the right balance, pressing for the withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops in 16 months, but also expressing a willingness to listen to advice from his defense secretary and military commanders.

"The question is, 'How do we do this in a responsible way?' And nobody wants to put at risk the gains that have been achieved with so much sacrifice on the part of our soldiers and the Iraqis at this point," Gates said.

Secretary Gates says senior officers are looking at how to do that, now that there is a U.S.-Iraqi agreement in place.

"The commanders are already looking at what the implications of that are in terms of the potential for accelerating the drawdown, and in terms of how we meet our obligations to the Iraqis," he said.

Gates said another top priority for the new administration will be to settle on a new strategy for Afghanistan. Several reviews are underway, and the new administration is expected to do its own.

Secretary Gates had indicated that he wanted to retire at the end of the Bush administration, but he said there is no time limit on his reappointment. Indeed, he said he has thrown away the countdown clock he used to keep in his briefcase indicating how many days and hours remained in his Bush administration tenure.

Gates said he considers himself a Republican, even though he is not officially a member of the party. But he said he is looking forward to serving with President-elect Obama, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who will be secretary of state, and other senior Democratic Party members in the new administration.

"The president-elect has made it pretty clear that he wanted a team of people around him who would tell him what they thought and give him their best advice," he said. "I think he has assembled that team. There will no doubt be differences among the team. And it will be up to the president to make the decision."

Gates said he did not have any "negotiations" with President-elect Obama on conditions for his continued service, and he expects most of the political appointees who work for him in the Defense Department to be replaced by Democrats early next year. He also revealed that he held a secret meeting with the president-elect in the firehouse at Washington's Reagan National Airport, near the Pentagon, in mid-November, the week after the election.