Defense secretary says U.S. may need to pause in drawdown of troops from Iraq

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AP Military Writer

FORWARD OPERATING BASE FALCON, Iraq (AP) -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Monday endorsed, for the first time, the idea of pausing the drawdown of U.S. forces from Iraq this summer.

"A brief period of consolidation and evaluation probably does make sense," Gates told reporters after meeting with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. Petraeus has indicated in recent weeks that he wants a "period of evaluation" this summer to assess the impact on Iraq security of reducing the U.S. military presence from 20 brigades to 15 brigades.

Of that five-brigade reduction, only one has departed thus far. The last of the five is to be gone by the end of July.

In his remarks at this U.S. base in southern Baghdad, Gates said Petraeus had given him his view on the drawdown, which some fear could result in giving up some of the security gains of recent months.

In endorsing Petraeus' suggestion of pausing after July, Gates made it clear that President Bush would have the final say. Until now it had been unclear how Gates felt about the idea of a pause; he had said publicly a number of times that he hoped conditions in Iraq would permit a continuation of the drawdown in the second half of the year.

In his remarks here, Gates indicated that he had begun some time ago to lean in Petraeus' direction.

"In my own thinking I had been kind of headed in that direction as well," Gates said. "But one of the keys is how long is that period (of pause and evaluation) and then what happens after that."

Despite dramatic declines in violence in recent months, the security situation in Iraq is tenuous, Gates said earlier Monday at an awards ceremony for Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the No. 2 commander in Iraq.

"Levels of violence of all kinds (are) dramatically reduced," Gates said. "The situation in Iraq continues to remain fragile, but the Iraqi people now have an opportunity to forge a better, more secure, more prosperous future."

Odierno is departing after 15 months in charge of the headquarters that carries out Petraeus' strategy on a day-to-day basis. Odierno is returning to Washington and has been nominated by Bush for promotion to four-star rank and assignment as Army vice chief of staff.

On Sunday, Gates said Iraq's political leaders face hard choices on how to stabilize the country despite promising new signs of progress toward reconciliation.

"They seem to have become energized over the last few weeks," Gates said. The Pentagon chief told reporters who traveled with him from a conference in Germany that he wants to "see what the prospects are for further success in the next couple of months."

In an interview on the trip to Iraq, Gates cited the recent passage of an amnesty law as an example of political progress. He said he would ask Iraqi leaders to assess the prospects for other important steps such as passing a law that would spell out power-sharing between the provinces and the national government.

He compared the struggle over that idea to the U.S. founding fathers' quest to find a constitutional compromise on how to share power in Congress between big and small states.

Gates said he would make clear to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other political leaders that "our continued eagerness for them to proceed and successfully conclude some of this legislation" considered essential to reconciling Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

Gates arrived after dark Sunday at Baghdad International Airport aboard an Air Force C-17 cargo plane. He flew by helicopter to a private dinner with government officials, including al-Maliki, Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

It was Gates' first visit this year and possibly his last before Petraeus and Crocker return to Washington in April to recommend to Bush whether to continue reducing U.S. troop levels after Petraeus' current drawdown plan is completed in July.

The question is whether conditions in Baghdad and elsewhere have improved enough to permit even more troop cuts without risking a deterioration in security. Petraeus' strategy is based on an expectation that improved security over time will give Iraqi political leaders an impetus to make compromises on legislation and other moves toward reconciliation.

Before Gates' arrival, the U.S. military said a diary and another document seized during raids showed that some al-Qaida in Iraq leaders fear the terrorist group is crumbling and that many fighters are defecting to American-backed neighborhood groups. But violence also raged Sunday. The U.S. military said a car bomb exploded near an Iraqi checkpoint in an open-market area north of Baghdad, killing at least 23 civilians and wounding 25.

Bush, discussing the long-term U.S. relationship with Iraq, said in an interview on "Fox News Sunday": "We will be there at the invitation of the Iraqi government. ... We won't have permanent bases. I do believe it is in our interests and the interests of the Iraqi people that we do enter into an agreement on how we are going to conduct ourselves over the next years."

Last year, Bush ordered five additional Army brigades to Iraq. One of those brigades left in December and the other four are due to come out by July, leaving 15 brigades, or about 130,000 to 135,000 troops -- the same number as before Bush sent the reinforcements.

Those additional troops have not led to political change and American soldiers deserve better "than a policy of war without end," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who called for the U.S. to begin pulling its forces from Iraq. But House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio, appearing with Pelosi on CNN's "Late Edition," said, "Democrats continue to be in denial about the success we're having in Iraq."