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US Defense Chief Expects Iraq Troop Drawdown to Stay on Schedule


U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he expects the drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq to proceed through July, as planned, and he hopes the process will continue in the second half of the year. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.

U.S. officials say the departure of each U.S. military unit from Iraq depends on the security situation at the time, and President Bush told the U.S. commander in Iraq last week that he could slow down the process if necessary. But on Thursday, Secretary Gates said he does not expect that to happen.

"All the evidence available to me now suggests that we will be able to complete the drawdown of the five Brigade Combat Teams that General Petraeus recommended last September, and that that take place by the end of July," said Robert Gates.

That would end the "surge" of U.S. forces President Bush ordered a year ago. And Secretary Gates says he remains hopeful the drawdown will continue beyond that.

"That remains my hope, that the pace of the drawdowns in the second half of the year can be what it was in the first half of the year," he said. "But as I have told General Petraeus directly, he is to make his evaluation of that possibility based solely on the conditions on the ground."

Secretary Gates says the first reduction of about 3,000 U.S. troops in December was also the beginning of a transition to a different mission for American forces in Iraq.

"Ultimately the mission will be one that we call 'Strategic Overwatch,' which is basically where we are not engaged on a daily basis, and where the Iraqis are in the lead and we are providing support, we are going after al-Qaida, we are helping them protect their borders, and we are doing training and equipping." said Secretary Gates.

But officials say it will take a long time to get to that point. At a separate news conference Thursday, the second-ranking U.S. commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, said the key is to be sure Iraqi forces are ready before they are given additional responsibilities. But he said there are some good signs.

"Without going into details of timing and locations, I will tell you that we have repositioned over two brigades of combat power to hunt down al-Qaida, and that it has already made a significant impact," said General Odierno. "We were able to do this without giving up any previously gained ground because of the improved capacity of Iraqi security forces and concerned local citizens."

General Odierno says Iraqi forces moved from one province to another to enable the U.S. forces to move out, something he said would not have been possible a year ago. He says U.S. forces could be needed in Iraq in support roles for another five to 10 years, but he said the number of troops would be no where near its current level of 160,000.