U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says restricting U.S. military operations in Iraq could unleash massive bloodshed among the country's warring factions. VOA's Michael Bowman reports from Washington, where leaders of the opposition-led Congress are threatening to cut off most forms of military spending in Iraq if President Bush does not agree to a timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces from the country.
Secretary Gates issued the latest verbal salvo in an increasingly fierce power struggle between America's executive and legislative branches of government over the future of U.S. military involvement in Iraq.
Speaking on a domestic radio program Thursday, Gates warned of "ethnic cleansing inside Baghdad or in Iraq more broadly," if U.S. troops curtail operations in the strife-ridden nation.
Speaking with reporters at the Pentagon hours later, the secretary used somewhat milder language, but his point was the same.
"I believe that if we were to precipitously withdraw from Baghdad at this point, there would be a dramatic increase in sectarian violence," he said.
Gates said, prematurely winding down U.S. military operations would allow bands of murderers to roam free in Iraq.
"Those who are being tortured and being killed are being killed by death squads," he said. "By hit squads. This is not a large number of people turning out onto the streets and killing each other."
"These are targeted killings by relatively small numbers of people, in an attempt to stoke the sectarian violence, and, frankly, to make the Baghdad security plan fail - by hampering the reconciliation process," he added.
The Pentagon says it needs a new infusion of funds within weeks to continue the war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both houses of the Democratic Party-controlled Congress have passed emergency spending bills that provide the money, but also establish dates for withdrawing U.S. forces.
President Bush says he will veto any bill that sets a timetable for a troop pullout. Democratic leaders have responded by pressing for even-starker legislation that would cut off funding for most forms of military operations in Iraq.
Many Democrats say U.S. efforts in Iraq have failed. But President Bush maintains that his current plan, increasing the number of U.S. troops in Baghdad and one of Iraq's violence-plagued provinces, is beginning to show some positive signs.
Appearing next to Secretary Gates was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace.
The general said the troop build-up is on schedule, and will be completed by June. Secretary Gates said he is hopeful that the security plan for Iraq will succeed, thereby bolstering Iraq's fledging government. But he added, "there is a great reluctance to engage in 'happy talk.'"