- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 5, 2006

3:04 p.m.

Robert Gates, the White House choice to be the next defense secretary, conceded today that the United States is losing the war in Iraq and warned that if that country is not stabilized in the next year or two, it could lead to a “regional conflagration.”

At the outset of his Senate confirmation hearing, Mr. Gates said he is open to new ideas about correcting the U.S. course in Iraq, which he said would be his highest priority if confirmed as expected.

Mr. Gates, 63, said he thinks President Bush wants to see Iraq improve to the point where it can govern and defend itself, while seeking a new approach. “What we are now doing is not satisfactory,” he said.

“In my view, all options are on the table, in terms of how we address this problem in Iraq.”

Asked point-blank by Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, whether the U.S. is winning in Iraq, Mr. Gates replied, “No, sir.”

In a follow-up question, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, an advocate of increasing U.S. troop strength in Iraq, asked whether Mr. Gates thinks the U.S. had too few troops at the outset of the war in 2003.

“I suspect in hindsight some of the folks in the administration would not make the same decisions they made,” including the number of troops in Iraq, Mr. Gates said.

He also told Mr. Levin he thinks a political solution in Iraq is required to end the violence.

The confirmation hearing comes amid intensifying pressure on Mr. Bush to take a new approach in Iraq, reflecting the outcome of the Nov. 7 elections that put Democrats back in control of both houses of Congress. Democrats and some Republicans have pressed Mr. Bush to begin withdrawing some of the 140,000 U.S. troops.

U.S. deaths in Iraq are approaching 2,900, and a relentless insurgency and escalating sectarian violence are raising questions about whether Iraq will devolve into all-out civil war and whether Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government can ever be effective.

“Our course over the next year or two will determine whether the American and Iraqi people and the next president of the United States will face a slowly but steadily improving situation in Iraq and in the region or will face the very real risk, and possible reality, of a regional conflagration,” Mr. Gates, 63, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Mr. Bush repeatedly has refused the idea of a quick U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and said he wants to keep U.S. forces there until Iraq is able to govern and defend itself without being a haven for terrorists.

“It seems to me that the United States is going to have to have some kind of presence in Iraq for a long time […] but it could be with a dramatically smaller number of U.S. forces than are there today,” Mr. Gates said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bush was getting an in-person preview today of a prestigious blue-ribbon panel’s recommendations for a new way forward in Iraq. Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, the Republican co-chairman of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, was going to the White House for a luncheon meeting to give the president a heads up about “the direction of the report,” White House press secretary Tony Snow said.

Mr. Snow said that Mr. Baker, however, would not be leaving behind the full report or getting into too many specifics. The entire commission is to meet with Bush tomorrow morning to do that, he said.

The White House sought to dampen expectations about the commission’s long-awaited recommendations, expected to include calls for the U.S. to increase cooperation with rivals Iran and Syria and to begin withdrawing combat brigades from Iraq. The president has resisted both ideas.

“Everybody seems to look at the Baker-Hamilton commission as a rebuff to the White House, and we don’t look at it that way, ” Mr. Snow said.

Mr. Gates, a former CIA director, was announced by Mr. Bush as his choice to replace Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Nov. 8, the day after congressional elections that were widely interpreted as a vote of no confidence in the administration’s Iraq policy.

If confirmed, he is likely to be sworn in as the nation’s 22nd secretary of defense in mid-December. There has been little sign that Democrats will block his nomination. In fact, key Democrats are eager to switch Pentagon chiefs as quickly as possible.

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