- The Washington Times - Monday, March 2, 2009

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Sunday that military commanders wanted President Obama to extend combat troop levels in Iraq beyond his planned 2010 withdrawal deadline, though he expects continued improvements in the country will ensure the plan will succeed unchanged.

“I think that, if the commanders had complete say in this matter, that they would have preferred that the combat mission not end until the end of 2010,” Mr. Gates said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

But Mr. Gates said the president’s decision to end combat operations in Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010, should allow for enough time and troops to provide a secure environment for remaining U.S. military and noncombat personnel.

“Having a somewhat larger residual or transition force mitigates the risk of having the combat units go out sooner,” he said. “I would characterize the likelihood of significant adjustments to this plan as fairly remote.”

Several Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill have balked at Mr. Obama’s promise.

The president’s plan to leave up to 50,000 troops in Iraq after the deadline to train, equip and advice Iraqi security forces and conduct counterterrorism missions - which he announced Friday at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina - drew praise from many Republican lawmakers, including Mr. Obama’s rival for the presidency, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. But it raised concerns and mild criticism from some congressional Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

“I don’t know what the justification is for …the 50,000 troops in Iraq,” Mrs. Pelosi told MSNBC last week. “I would think a third of that, maybe …15,000 or 20,000” would be sufficient.

Mr. Reid said last week that “when they talk about 50,000, that’s a little higher number than I had anticipated.”

But Mr. Gates said the administration’s withdrawal timetable was not a “concession” to ground commanders who wanted a larger force and more time in Iraq than what Mr. Obama initially suggested. Rather, he said, the decision was reached after thorough consultations between the president and military personnel, as well as “a lot of analysis of the risks that were involved.”

“It was really a dialogue between the commanders in the field, the joint chiefs here, myself, the chairman and the president in terms of how you mitigate risk and how you structure this, going forward,” Mr. Gates said.

The secretary said that Mr. Obama, as commander and chief of the armed forces, retains the flexibility to change or adjust the withdrawal timetable.

But he added that he “would characterize the likelihood of significant adjustments to this plan as fairly remote.”

The nation’s top U.S. military officer agreed that Mr. Obama listened extensively to military leaders before announcing the withdrawal timetable.

“As we look down the road and execute this plan over the next 18 months, I am sure that I’ll be able to address any issues that come up with respect to change in conditions,” said Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen on “Fox News Sunday.”

Adm. Mullen added that he “strongly” supports the president’s troop-withdrawal decision.

“We had a very thorough review, discussion, debate, and it was the cumulative discussion that got us to the point where we made a recommendation for the 19-month withdrawal plan,” Mr. Mullen said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” . “The president accepted that and has made that decision.”

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