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Gates seeks bigger troop cut

The Defense chief looks to reduce the number in Iraq by nearly half before 2009 -- a deeper trim than Bush plans.

September 15, 2007|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Friday that he hoped to cut the U.S. force in Iraq to nearly half its current size by the end of 2008, a more dramatic reduction than President Bush endorsed this week and a new indication of divergent viewpoints within the administration and the military.

Bush and Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, proposed modest reductions to bring U.S. troop levels to between 130,000 and 140,000 by July. Although Petraeus said additional reductions were possible by the end of next year, Gates went further Friday and said he hoped troop levels would drop to 100,000. There are 20 ground combat brigades, or 169,000 troops, in Iraq.

Gates, an early skeptic of the troop buildup that began this year, took pains Friday to emphasize that the Bush administration's top military advisors agreed on how to proceed in Iraq. But Gates' comments reflect underlying rifts within the military, between commanders in the field and those at the Pentagon, as the war enters its latest phase.

Petraeus has favored higher troop numbers to back U.S. military aims, while Gates and other military leaders have expressed a preference for lower numbers out of concern for readiness, training and recruitment, according to administration and military officials.

Though military officials have agreed on a strategy for the next six months, the compromise faces a test early next year, when the Pentagon and the White House reopen the question of troop cuts.

"This is one of those cases that where you stand on an issue depends on where you sit in the bureaucracy," said a senior military official stationed in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing internal debates.

The differences emerged at the end of a week in which Bush and his top military and civilian leaders in Iraq outlined their vision of the future, and just before Congress is to restart a debate over the war, with Democrats considering ways to force Bush to make faster, more drastic troop reductions. Gates' support for steeper cuts will probably play into the debate over how fast and far to reduce force levels.

Bush and Petraeus want a reduction of at least 21,500 by July, and plan to decide in March whether levels can be reduced further. Both said they would like additional reductions, but have steadfastly refused to commit to further cuts. Officers in Iraq fear that hasty U.S. withdrawals will lead a collapse of the Iraqi military.

Although he favors deeper troop cuts, Gates opposes Democratic measures designed to force a speedier withdrawal, arguing those will unnecessarily tie the hands of the American military. But his support of a force reduction seems designed to forge some agreement between the administration and lawmakers.

Members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff privately have expressed a desire for a reduction to 10 combat brigades or about 100,000 troops by late 2008. In his comments Thursday, Gates endorsed that view.

"My hope is that when he does his assessment in March, that Gen. Petraeus will be able to say that he thinks that the pace of the drawdowns can continue at the same rate in the second half of the year as in the first half of the year," Gates said.

Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. hoped to withdraw 20,000 to 30,000 troops by July. Asked whether continuing the drawdown at that rate would lead to a force of 100,000 by the end of the year, Gates said, "That would be the math."

Gates said U.S. troops would have a less ambitious mission in the future, concentrating more on counter-terrorism, training and border security.

"It probably looks a lot like Baker-Hamilton," he said, referring to the report of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan commission whose recommendations for a reduced U.S. presence were spurned by Bush last year.

Gates had been a member of the panel, led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana, but left the group when he was nominated to become Defense secretary.

Though backing some of the panel's views, Gates also defended Bush's decision to slowly wind down the "surge" rather than pull out faster, as Democrats have demanded.

Gates said he supported Petraeus' strategy because it was important "to avoid even the appearance of American failure or defeat in Iraq."

Gates, who spent most of his government career as an intelligence analyst fighting the Soviets during the Cold War, invoked Russia's experience in Afghanistan.

"Extremist Islam was dramatically empowered by defeating the Soviet Union in Afghanistan," Gates said.

"The first attack against us by the extremists, the World Trade Center in 1993, was launched from Afghanistan just four years after the last Soviet soldier left there."

Driving the U.S. out of Iraq, Gates said, would be considered a greater victory by extremists than Afghanistan.

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