Gates says U.S. isn’t winning Iraq war

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Defense Secretary-designate Robert M. Gates yesterday said the U.S. is not winning in Iraq, but he declined to endorse any one of scores of new options floating in Washington for ending the stalemate and the American troop commitment.

Mr. Gates’ Iraq assessment before the Senate Armed Services Committee, which later gave its unanimous approval to his nomination, came in response to a question from Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, who asked, “Do you believe that we are currently winning in Iraq?”

“No, sir,” answered the man who is likely to become the president’s chief military adviser on overhauling Iraq strategy. Mr. Gates later testified that he agreed with Gen. Peter Pace, Joint Chiefs chairman, who has said the U.S. is neither winning nor losing at this point.

The response seemed to put the nominee at odds with the commander in chief.

President Bush declared: “Absolutely, we’re winning” in Iraq during an October press conference. He added, however, that he was not satisfied with overall developments, including a big spike in sectarian violence in Baghdad.

Mr. Gates said of the president, “I also believe that he understands that there needs to be a change in our approach in Iraq, that what we are doing now is not working satisfactorily.”

The committee later, as expected, voted unanimously to approve the Gates nomination. The full Senate will take up the matter this week.

The question dominating Washington, as the White House weighs a shift in Iraq strategy, is whether to increase, decrease or rearrange the 135,000 troops on the ground. Mr. Gates said he does not know enough today to make a recommendation to Mr. Bush.

If confirmed, he said, he plans to first travel to Iraq to meet commanders and receive their assessments. The timeline suggests that any comprehensive change in policy will not come for weeks.

Mr. Gates did signal that he does not favor an immediate pullout, as favored by Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat.

“There is a risk that others looking around the world would see that we don’t have the patience and we don’t have the will,” Mr. Gates said. “So I think those are some of the concerns that we would face if we ended up leaving Iraq in chaos.”

During the hearing’s lunch break, Mr. Gates noted that press coverage was dominated by his not-winning comment.

“I want to make clear that that pertains to the situation in Iraq as a whole,” he told Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican and committee chairman, in the afternoon session. “Our military forces win the battles that they fight. Our soldiers have done an incredible job in Iraq, and I’m not aware of a single battle that they have lost.”

The former CIA director, in sober clipped testimony, made a dramatic overture to both Democrats and Republicans. Under questioning from Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a Democrat who supports the war, Mr. Gates implored Congress to agree on a bipartisan framework for winning in Iraq, and in the larger struggle against Islamist terrorism.

“I think that it is imperative in this long war on terrorism that we face, that could go on for a generation, that there be a bipartisan agreement,” he said. “Then there would be consistency on the part of whoever is elected president in 2008 and beyond, so that we can carry on this struggle in a way that they don’t think we’re going to cut and run.”

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