Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, taking sides in a fight that has divided the Pentagon, said in Baghdad yesterday that it makes sense to temporarily halt U.S. troop withdrawals this summer, holding U.S. force levels roughly where they were before President Bush’s military surge last year.

Mr. Gates’ decision, which must be approved by Mr. Bush, was a victory for Iraqi commander Gen. David Petraeus over service chiefs back in Washington who fear the continued deployment in Iraq is straining the military and leaving it unable to meet crises elsewhere.

I think that the notion of a brief period of consolidation and evaluation probably does make sense, Mr. Gates told reporters after a two-hour meeting with Gen. Petraeus.

I must say, in my own thinking, I am headed in that direction as well, but one of the keys is how long is that period and what happens after that, he said. It still has to be determined and decided by the president.

Mr. Gates’ remarks drew immediate criticism from the two Democratic presidential candidates, who campaigned yesterday in the region ahead of today’s primaries in Washington, Maryland and Virginia.

Mr. Gates had earlier expressed hope that the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, soon to enter its fifth year, could be cut from the current 157,000 to around 100,000 by the end of the year. Now, with the five surge brigades set to depart by July, a strategic pause would keep U.S. forces at around 130,000.

Republican presidential front-runner Sen. John McCain of Arizona has strongly backed the surge, but both Democratic contenders immediately criticized Mr. Gates.

I strongly disagree with the administration’s plans to ‘pause’ the long-overdue removal of our combat brigades in Iraq, Mr. Obama said yesterday.

We cannot wage war without end in Iraq while ignoring mounting costs to our troops and their families, our security and our economy.

Mrs. Clinton said she was very disheartened by Mr. Gates’ remarks.

I have said repeatedly that there is no military solution, and it’s time for the American military to be relieved from the responsibility of refereeing the Iraqi civil war, she said.

The Pentagon service chiefs, notably Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James T. Conway, have expressed concern about the stress on U.S. troops and military readiness because of the manpower demands in Iraq — a stress only increased by the recent decision to dispatch another 3,200 U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan.

With Iraq deployments stretched from 12 to 15 months to meet force needs, Gen. Casey recently warned that the Army soon would cross an invisible red line leaving it unable to respond as rapidly as necessary should another crisis arise.

But Mr. Gates has apparently accepted the arguments of Iraqi commanders that a too-quick pullout could undercut the progress made since last fall.

We’re not going to make the same mistakes we made in the past, and that’s turning over too quickly any piece of Baghdad and losing ground, Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, commander of U.S. forces in the Iraqi capital, told reporters recently.

At a recent Brookings Institution briefing on the Iraq war, former top Pentagon aide Peter Rodman said Mr. Bush’s determination to win in Iraq would likely trump the Pentagon’s fears of overstretching resources.

He wants to succeed in Iraq. That’s his priority, Mr. Rodman said.

Iraqi opinion polls show deep ambivalence about the foreign troop presence. Iraqis are anxious to see the U.S. soldiers go but equally anxious about security and terrorism if they leave too quickly, according to Iraqi Ambassador to the U.S. Samir Sumaida’ie.

Whatever their sympathies, I think most Iraqis recognize that we can’t suddenly have all the troops pull out, because it would mean a security vacuum we cannot presently fill, he said.

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