IHT : Gates backs maintaining U.S. troop levels in Iraq

Monday, February 11, 2008

Gates backs maintaining U.S. troop levels in Iraq

By Thom Shanker | February 11, 2008

BAGHDAD: Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Monday endorsed the concept of keeping U.S. troop levels steady in Iraq, at least temporarily, after the departure this summer of the five combat brigades sent last year as part of the Bush administration's efforts to improve security.

After meeting with top U.S. commanders, Gates said for the first time that he supported the idea of ordering a pause in troop reductions until the impact on security of the lower force levels could be assessed. "I think that the notion of a brief period of consolidation and evaluation probably does make sense," he said.

His comments were another strong indication that U.S. troop numbers in Iraq were unlikely to drop far below 130,000 this year, and certainly not to the level of 100,000 advocated by some military officials and analysts worried about the strains on the army.

General David Petraeus, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, has hinted that he would recommend freezing troop levels, at least while he conducted further assessments, after the military presence drops back to 15 combat brigades in July. By that time, the last of five additional brigades ordered to Iraq last year by President George W. Bush would have departed.

Bush has said he would put great weight on Petraeus's formal recommendations, due this spring, and repeatedly has said that he would do whatever was necessary to sustain gains in security made over the months of the troop increase.

Gates met for two hours Monday with Petraeus and Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, who is scheduled to leave Iraq soon after 15 months as the No. 2 commander.

After the private session, Gates acknowledged that his assessment on whether to recommend that Bush put off additional troop withdrawals had been developing at the same time and along the same lines as that of the commanders'. "I had been kind of headed in that direction, as well," he said.

But the defense secretary cautioned that significant questions were still to be decided, including "how long is that period" of a pause in troop cuts, and "what happens after that."

Gates stressed that the president still had made no decisions and that Bush would receive separate assessments from Petraeus, from commanders responsible for the broader Middle East and from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who would evaluate strain on the military and global threats.

Officials worried about stress on the ground forces had expressed hopes that U.S. troop levels in Iraq could begin dropping toward 100,000 this year.

Although Bush has indicated that he would order no further troop reductions if security gains might be undermined, decisions on the U.S. commitment to Iraq will pass to a new president in January.

The top Democratic presidential candidates have said they favor more rapid troop reductions in Iraq, while Senator John McCain, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, is an unwavering supporter of the troop increase.

The troop increase ordered by Bush in January 2007 acknowledged that Baghdad was the center of gravity for security in Iraq, and the goal of adding combat forces was to drive terrorists from the city and from a belt of communities surrounding the capital, as well as to suppress insurgent groups and sectarian death squads.

In violence Monday, two car bombs exploded in Baghdad, killing at least 11 people in what appeared to be a coordinated attack on a leader of the citizens' groups that have turned against Sunni insurgents, Iraqi officials said. The blasts, within a few hundred meters of one another, erupted around noon in the largely quiet and religiously mixed neighborhood of Karada. The bombs seemed to be another attack on the so-called Awakening groups, mostly Sunni tribesmen now allied with United States and Iraqi forces to defeat Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

The television network CBS, meanwhile, said in a brief statement Monday that two journalists were missing in the southern city of Basra. "All efforts are under way to find them," said the statement, which also asked other news organizations not to "speculate on the identity of those involved."

The Iraqi police reported that those missing were a reporter and translator, and that they had been taken away in what appeared to be official police vehicles. A semi-independent news network, Voices of Iraq, citing police sources in Basra, reported on its Web site that a British journalist, apparently a photographer, and his Iraqi interpreter were abducted from their hotel, the Qasr al-Sultan, in Basra. CBS declined to comment on those details.

Ian Fisher contributed reporting from Baghdad and James Glanz contributed from New York.