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Defense Chief Says US Could Begin Iraq Withdrawal This Year

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday the United States could begin withdrawing troops from Iraq later this year, if several security and political factors are right. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.

Secretary Gates told a U.S. Senate committee it is difficult to predict when a withdrawal will begin. But he said if the Iraqi military fulfills its commitments in the Baghdad security plan, and the government makes progress toward national reconciliation, the withdrawal could begin this year.

"I would hope that we would be able to begin drawing down our troops later this year," he said. "If we have to look at other alternatives, alternative strategies, then that would depend on what those strategies might be."

Secretary Gates said he is considering what those alternative strategies might be if the plan President Bush announced last month does not work. He said the current effort is "not the last chance" to defeat the insurgents in Iraq.

But Gates reported that so far the Baghdad security plan is on track. Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat, pressed the secretary on the competence of Iraqi forces, who are supposed to take a leading role in the operation.

Nelson: "I am trying to get my hands around are they reliable or not?"

Gates: "Senator, I think that's the question we all have. And I think that we've talked here a lot about [the fact that] we're going to have to see how it actually plays out on the ground."

Secretary Gates quoted his top commander in Iraq, General George Casey, as saying "so far, so good" on the question of the Iraqi military performance in Baghdad. The secretary said General Casey also reports that the Iraqi troops are arriving on schedule, and at about 60 percent of their full strength, with another 25 per cent of their soldiers expected to join them after finishing approved leave.

"Here right at the very beginning, and really only as they are beginning to flow into Baghdad, on balance, they're probably doing okay," he said.

The top U.S. military officer, General Peter Pace, told the same hearing he is particularly pleased that the Iraqi commander of the Baghdad security operation, Lieutenant General Aboud Qanbar, is taking an even-handed approach to security problems in Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods. "The initial indications, not to be giddy about, but the initial indications on the execution of the Iraqi piece of Baghdad, on the military part, are promising," he said.

The testimony by General Pace and Secretary Gates came the day after Republican Party senators blocked debate on a resolution expressing opposition to President Bush's plan to send 21,000 more U.S. troops to Iraq as part of the Baghdad security operation. The officials were there to explain their request for $623 billion in defense spending next year, plus $93 billion more for this year to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.