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US Defense Secretary Says Lack of Funding Could Hurt Iraq War Effort

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says Pentagon funding shortfalls resulting from congressional debate about the conduct of the Iraq war could result in difficulty supplying the troops and significant layoffs in his department. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.

Secretary Gates says there is a "serious misconception" in the Congress that he can move money among accounts in his department in order to provide for the troops in action. He says if the Congress does not pass a war funding bill that President Bush can sign soon, he will have to take drastic action.

"The military would cease operations at all army bases by mid-February of next year," said Robert Gates. "This would result in the furloughing of about 100,000 government employees and a like number of contractor employees at army bases. These layoffs would have a cascading effect on depots and procurement. Similar actions would follow for the Marine Corps about a month later."

Secretary Gates says preparations will have to be made this week to put such a plan into action, and formal notices will have to go to employees and contractors by mid-December.

The secretary appeared particularly frustrated by the ongoing congressional debate because, he says, the president has already made many of the policy changes the Congress wanted - announcing the start of troop withdrawals from Iraq and a change in their mission to more training and supervision and less direct combat.

"I think that the debate has really moved on," he said. "It's really not about principles, it seems to me, any more. It's about pacing. And that's where I think deference should be paid to the views of those conducting the operations."

Secretary Gates says U.S. military commanders in Iraq and Washington agree that the drawdown of U.S. forces must be done slowly and carefully to avoid losing the gains made by this year's surge of forces and change in counterinsurgency strategy.

The secretary also said he shares some of the concern expressed by members of Congress about the lack of progress on key issues by the Iraqi government and parliament. But he says there has been some progress that had not been anticipated, and reconciliation and governmental improvements on the local level are starting to put pressure on national leaders.

"We are beginning to see some very tentative indications that there is increasing pressure from some of the provinces on the ministries and on the central government to get on with sorting out some of these other problems and to become more effective," said Secretary Gates. "So we need to keep the pressure on, and I think we will."

Gates would not endorse comments by the number two U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, who was quoted in Thursday's Washington Post as saying the United States would have to review its Iraq strategy if the Baghdad government does not make a breakthrough on reconciliation by next summer, when the first phase of the U.S. troop drawdown will be in full swing.