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US Defense Secretary Hopes for Deeper Troop Cuts in Iraq

Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he hopes U.S. troop levels in Iraq can be cut to about 100,000 by the end of next year, a figure that is well beyond cuts recently approved by President Bush. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel has details from Washington.

Stressing he is expressing his hope, not a Bush administration plan, Secretary Gates told reporters at the Pentagon that conditions in Iraq could improve enough to allow much deeper cuts in troops than are currently scheduled for 2008.

The defense secretary says he hopes U.S. troops can be drawn down to about 10 combat brigades and support units - or about 100-thousand troops -- by the end of next year.

There are currently about 169-thousand U.S. troops in Iraq and President Bush announced this week he has approved a plan by General David Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, to reduce forces from 20 combat brigades to 15 brigades by July of next year.

Secretary Gates says he is hopeful the reductions can continue at about the same pace during the last half of 2008. "General Petraeus made clear that force reductions will continue beyond July, with the pace of continuing reductions dictated by conditions on the ground. Further I want to point out that any long-term, residual U.S. military presence in Iraq, which would have to be negotiated with the Iraqi government, would be a fraction of the size of today's deployed force," he said.

Secretary Gates says it is too early for General Petraeus, who testified before the U.S. Congress earlier this week, to forecast with confidence any additional cuts in troop strength. Petraeus plans a further assessment and recommendations next March.

Gates says the stakes in Iraq are too high to withdraw troops any faster than President Bush has approved so far. "The political debate and the debate among historians about this war will go on for a long time. However, the consequences of American failure in Iraq at this point would, I believe, be disastrous not just for Iraq, but for the region, for the United States and for the world. No discussion of where and how we go from here can avoid this stark reality," he said.

Democrats in the U.S. Senate are planning to hold votes next week on a series of proposals that could change the course of the war.

One measure would limit American troops to training Iraqi forces, securing the country's borders and fighting terrorist insurgents. Another proposal would make sure that soldiers returning from Iraq would stay home for at least the same amount of time as their latest deployment before returning to the battlefield.

Secretary Gates opposes those ideas, saying they could increase the danger for troops in Iraq. "As well intentioned as many of these proposals are, I think the reality is they become very difficult for us to manage and end up imposing some real hardships, not only on our forces but also potentially impacting combat effectiveness and risk," he said.

Secretary Gates is expected to discuss troop deployments and funding for the war during an appearance on Capitol Hill next week.