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US Will Press Iraq to Perform in New Offensive

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says Iraq will have to demonstrate its ability to deliver more troops to Baghdad and limit the political influence of militia factions before most of the additional U.S. troops will be deployed to the country. The secretary spoke at a news conference and a congressional hearing the day after President Bush announced his new Iraq strategy, focused on bringing security to Baghdad, including the deployment of more than 20,000 additional U.S. troops. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.

Secretary Gates says the U.S. troop increase in Iraq will happen over a period of months, and there will be plenty of time to determine whether the Iraqi government and military are fulfilling their commitments.

"Our belief is they will fulfill these commitments. But if we see them falling short, we will make sure that they know that, and how strongly we feel about it," he said.

The secretary said if the Iraqis still do not keep their promises, the United States will again re-evaluate its strategy in Iraq. But he indicated he does not think that will be necessary.

"This is, I think, the pivot point in Iraq, as the Iraqi government insists on assuming the mantle of leadership in the effort to regain control of its own capital," he said.

The top U.S. military officer, General Peter Pace, says the Iraqi government first proposed the new security initiative, and has so far done everything it has promised, including appointing a commander for its part of the Baghdad operation and beginning to move forces toward the capital.

"The number one most important difference between this plan and other plans is the political environment in which it will be executed," he said.

Secretary Gates indicated that U.S. officials will be particularly concerned about Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's promise that the military campaign will not be hindered by influential politicians allied with militant factions. The secretary said that has been a problem in the past.

"One of the most important commitments that the prime minister has made is that in this offensive the military will have the authority to go after all law breakers. There are no exceptions," he said.

Secretary Gates would not say whether the military operation will pursue shiite militia leaders like Moqtada al-Sadr, but he said 'all lawbreakers' will be pursued, and all Baghdad neighborhoods will be included.

He was also asked how long the U.S. troop increase, or surge, will last.

"I don't think anybody has a definite idea about how long the surge would last. I think for most of us, in our minds we're thinking of it as a matter of months, not 18 months or two years," he said.

Adding about 20,000 troops to Iraq will bring the number of U.S. forces to only slightly more than it has been from time to time, due to overlaps or special deployments during the Iraqi elections. But Pentagon Spokesman Bryan Whitman says this increase is different because the additional troops will be combat brigades, and will increase the U.S. commander's combat capability by 33 percent, with most of the increase in Baghdad.

When Secretary Gates and General Pace appeared before the House of Representatives' Armed Services Committee, many members, particularly Democrats, expressed opposition to the troop increase plan. Among the strongest statements came from Democratic Representative Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii.

"This is the craziest, dumbest plan I've ever seen or heard of in my life. What on earth leads you or the president or the prime minister or anybody in the Joint Chiefs to think such a plan will work anywhere in the world," he said.

Abercrombie said it is ridiculous having U.S. and Iraqi troops, as well as two or three types of Iraqi police, all trying to work together. Others expressed doubt about whether the Iraqi government will live up to its commitments under the plan, and whether the Iraqi forces are competent enough to do their part.

But some members expressed support for the plan. Among them was the senior Republican on the committee, Representative Duncan Hunter, who is running for his party's presidential nomination.

"I think the Baghdad plan offers a bolder use of Iraqi military forces and an innovative use of American forces. If this works in Baghdad, Mr. Secretary, I would see the opportunity to employ it throughout the country," he said.

Also on Thursday, Secretary Gates announced that over the next five years, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps will be increased by a total of 92,000 troops to ensure enough force is available for whatever challenges the nation faces. That increase is subject to congressional approval.

The secretary also announced that some reserve forces will be called to duty for a second time before the usual five-year waiting period has elapsed.