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Pentagon Chief Talks of Further Iraq Troop Cuts

The 100,000-troop figure may also indicate what kind of military presence the Bush administration intends to hand off to the next president and what the mission of that "post-surge" force might be.

"I think the mission of that group, when you get to the final steady state, it probably looks a lot like Baker-Hamilton," Gates said, referring to the recommendations issued in December by the Iraq Study Group, which was led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.).

Gates, who was a member of that group until Bush nominated him to replace Donald H. Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, noted that the major missions of such a force would include attacking terrorist groups, training and supporting Iraqi security forces, and helping patrol Iraq's borders to deter foreign intervention.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said there is little daylight between Gates and Bush and Petraeus. "I see a man who is secretary of defense expressing what his hope would be," she said. "Everything he said was heavily conditional."

In an interview last night on PBS's "News Hour With Jim Lehrer," Gates elaborated on his views and took issue with the assertion by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that Bush is planning a 10-year occupation of Iraq.

"The reality is that what we're looking at is a conditions-based drawdown to a long-term presence that would be a stabilizing force in Iraq and in the region," Gates said. "It would be a fraction of the force that we have there right now."

By the end of the Bush presidency, Gates said, he hopes to see "a significantly smaller American presence in Iraq, that we would perhaps be somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 brigades instead of the 20 that we have right now, and that the situation was continuing to improve in a way that allowed that to happen."

The administration's benchmark assessment yesterday contrasted with a report released last week by the Government Accountability Office, which judged that only three of the 18 benchmarks had been met. Among the most significant conclusions of a draft of the GAO report was that the number of Iraqi army units capable of operating without U.S. military assistance had fallen from 10 to six. The numbers, which the U.S. military said were classified, were removed from the published version of the GAO report.

A senior administration official said a major reason for the difference is that the GAO was tasked by Congress to determine whether the benchmarks had been met, while the White House was supposed to assess the kind of progress that was being made by the Iraqis, which is a more subjective judgment.

Although the bottom line of the benchmark report released yesterday differed little from the White House's interim assessment two months ago, the tone of the document had been transformed from a presentation of relatively dry, unadorned facts in July to a more nuanced explanation for ongoing failures.

Benchmark No. 10, for example, requires the Iraqi government to provide its military commanders with the authority to make decisions without civilian interference and to pursue all extremists across sectarian divides. Its performance was judged "not satisfactory" in July as well as this month, but the latest report sympathized with Iraq's "historical prejudices" and said such problems will "only be fully solved by time and the experience of democratic government."

Other minor changes between the July and September reports included the substitution of "mixed progress" for a failing grade on the ability of Iraqi security forces to enforce the law evenhandedly. The Iraqi army is deemed to have made "satisfactory progress," while "some elements still act with sectarian bias" in the national police. Progress toward provincial elections remained mixed but was said to be moving forward.

A chart that Petraeus used in his congressional testimony indicated that the number of independently capable security units had decreased every month since April. Yesterday's administration report, however, said only that the number of such units "has not increased as much as desired."

Staff writers Karen DeYoung, Ann Scott Tyson and Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.

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