By Amit R. Paley and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
BAGHDAD, Feb. 11 -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Monday that he would support a temporary halt in the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq this summer, a move that elicited anger from Democrats backing a speedier military exit from the country.
The remarks, made after Gates met with senior commanders during an unannounced visit to Iraq, marked a significant shift from his previously stated hope of achieving a continual drawdown to about 100,000 troops, which would include 10 combat brigades as well as support troops, by the end of this year. His backing of a pause in the withdrawal makes it unlikely that troop levels in 2008 will drop much beyond the 15 combat brigades -- about 130,000 troops, including support forces -- that were deployed before the so-called surge began a year ago.
"I think the notion of a brief period of consolidation and evaluation probably does make sense," Gates told reporters traveling with him. He did not say how long such a period would last.
Gates voiced support for the pause after a two-hour meeting with Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, who has said such a waiting period was crucial to assessing the impact of the reductions, so that the force would not be cut so quickly that it sacrificed hard-won security gains.
"I had been kind of headed in that direction as well," Gates said. "One of the keys is how long is that period and then what happens after that. All of that is still to be determined, and then ultimately decided by the president."
Asked by a reporter about Gates's comments, Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, the commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, welcomed the remarks. He said Gates is "directing his plans toward the enemy, he isn't directing his plans toward a timeline."
"That, to me, sounds like a strategy as opposed to a withdrawal," he said.
But military officials outside Iraq -- including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, and the generals heading the Army and Marine Corps -- have voiced growing concern about the U.S. commitment here. They worry about the stress on troops from long war-zone tours and how that reduces the readiness of U.S. ground troops to tackle other problematic situations around the world.
Mullen testified last week before Congress that the U.S. military is accepting a "significant" risk by having so many troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Concern is also growing about the Army's 15-month combat tours, which the military decided were necessary to accomplish the troop buildup in Iraq last year.
"Fifteen months is too long, and we need to get to 12 and actually move to a one-year deployment and two years back as rapidly as we can," Mullen said. "We continue to build risk with respect to that."
In Congress, Democratic lawmakers voiced their unhappiness at Gates's remarks, and both Democratic presidential candidates expressed criticism.
"I strongly disagree with the administration's plans to 'pause' the long overdue removal of our combat brigades from Iraq," Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) said in a statement. "We cannot wage war without end in Iraq while ignoring mounting costs to our troops and their families, our security and our economy."
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), in a statement, said: "I was very disheartened to hear Secretary Gates . . . suggest that the withdrawal of our troops from Iraq would not continue at the pace that had been expected. . . . I continue to call on the President to end the war he started, to take responsibility for bringing our young men and women home."
Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he was disappointed by the support for a pause in troop withdrawals this summer, which he called a "strategic risk."
"A rigid focus on Iraq that blinds us from other critical national security concerns does not protect American interests," Skelton said in a statement. "I strongly encourage the President and the Secretary to give major consideration to the overall health of our force and its ability to respond in the event we find ourselves faced with another threat."
Tyson reported from Washington.