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Gates: US Mission in Iraq to Change Over Time

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says American troops are likely to remain in Iraq for the long term, although their numbers will decline and their mission will change. VOA White House Correspondent Paula Wolfson reports, Gates defended President Bush's war strategy during a series of interviews on American television.

President Bush has spoken of an enduring U.S. military presence in Iraq. Critics of the war say that means a conflict that rages for more than a decade, with significant American troop levels on the ground - perhaps 100,000 at any given time.

But Secretary of Defense Gates disagrees. He says once the modest troop reductions announced Thursday by the president have been made, the Bush administration will further assess the situation. He says if progress continues to be made the mission of U.S. forces will evolve.

"Assuming the conditions prevail in Iraq that allows us to continue the drawdown that the president has talked about, the idea is that we would have a much more limited role in Iraq for some protracted period of time as a stabilizing force," he said.

During an appearance on ABC's This Week program, Gates said he envisions a relatively small U.S. military presence in the future. He said it would focus on border security, counter-terrorism efforts, and training and equipping the Iraqi military.

"I do not know what the numbers would be. First of all, it will have to be negotiated with the Iraqis to see what they are prepared to accept. But I think certainly a small fraction of what we have there now," he added.

President Bush announced Thursday that he has accepted a plan by his top commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, to withdraw nearly 6,000 troops from Iraq by the end of the year, with a further drawdown in the first six months of 2008.

The Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat Joseph Biden of Delaware, told the Fox News Sunday program that the withdrawal plan does not go far enough.

"I think the main thing is getting the American forces redeployed out of the fault lines in the middle of this civil war," said Biden.

Senator Biden, who is seeking the Democratic Party nomination for president, said he agrees with the White House that a total withdrawal of U.S. forces would be a disaster. But he said American troops can be effective in far smaller numbers if redeployed along Iraq's borders.

"There is no suggestion - no suggestion - that would be anything remotely approaching abandonment. It would be a fundamental change in tactic," he added.

New U.S. public-opinion polls indicate most Americans do not support the president's war strategy, but do not want an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. A Fox News poll indicates only 22 percent of Americans favor an immediate pull-out of American forces, while 42 percent prefer a gradual withdrawal during the course of a year, and 24 percent want to wait until the Iraqi military is totally able to take over. Meanwhile, an Associated Press survey says 65 percent disagree with the president's handling of the war.