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US Defense Chief Hopes for Further Iraq Withdrawals This Year


U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he no longer holds out the hope that the U.S. troop level in Iraq will be down to 100,000 by the time the Bush administration leaves office in January. But he does hope for further withdrawals after the end of the surge in July leaves about 140,000 U.S. troops in the country. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Washington.

Shortly after President Bush announced he has accepted the recommendation from senior military officers for a pause in U.S. withdrawals after the surge ends, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Carl Levin, asked Secretary Gates this question.

LEVIN: "You said in September, 2007, you hoped that we could get down to 100,000 troops in Iraq by January of '09. Do you still have that hope?"

GATES: "No, sir."

Senator Levin then pressed Secretary Gates on whether there will be any further U.S. troop withdrawals after July, noting that the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General Petraeus, told the same committee on Tuesday he would not use the words "brief" or "pause" to describe the period of consolidation and assessment that will follow the surge. Secretary Gates used both words.

"A brief pause for consolidation and evaluation following a return to pre-surge troop levels will allow us to analyze the process and its effects in a comprehensive way," he said. "I do not anticipate this period of review to be an extended. And I would emphasize that the hope, depending on conditions on the ground, is to reduce our presence further this fall."

General Petraeus had expressed no such optimism, and said he will not even begin to assess the possibility of further withdrawals until 45 days after the surge ends. When senators pressed Secretary Gates to explain the apparent discrepancy, he stood his ground, saying he believes General Petraeus will be able to make an initial recommendation right at the end of the 45 days.

"My view is that he will be, he should be, in a position at the end of that 40-day, that 45-day, period of evaluation and consolidation to make a determination whether a next further drawdown could take place," he said.

Secretary Gates said General Petraeus and other senior commanders will continue to evaluate the security situation in Iraq after that, a process he said could result in at least some further withdrawals before the end of the year if the security improvements of the last several months hold after the surge forces leave.