U S defence chief says Iraq at "pivotal moment"

 
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BASRA, Iraq, Jan 19 (Reuters) U S Defence Secretary Robert Gates said today Iraq was at a ''pivotal moment'' and the top U S commander in Iraq said it would be ''late summer'' before decisions could be made on reducing U S troop numbers.

At a joint news conference with Gates in the southern city of Basra, General George Casey said the primary mission of some 20,000 extra U S troops to be sent by President George W Bush in coming months was to help Iraqi forces secure Baghdad.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is preparing to launch a major security crackdown in the capital that many see as a last chance to stem sectarian violence pitching Iraq towards civil war.

''Whatever one's views on how we got to this point, here in Iraq at this pivotal moment, there is widespread agreement here that failure would be calamity for American national interests and those of many other countries as well,'' Gates said.

''Given what is at stake, failure is not an option.'' Casey said Baghdad would not be secured overnight. He hoped to see gradual progress over 60 to 90 days but it could be late summer before people in Baghdad feel safe. Commanders could then take a view on whether the U S could start to draw down troops.

''I believe the projections are late summer,'' he said. ''We'll start thinking about it before then but it will be late summer before we see the results that would cause us to make some decisions like that.'' Gates was in Basra on an unannounced trip as part of a tour that has also taken him to Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. It was his second to Iraq in a month.

He was appointed after Donald Rumsfeld resigned in November amid mounting public disquiet over the Iraq conflict.

Bush's plan to send more troops has run into fierce opposition from the new Democrat-controlled Congress and opinion polls show growing public pressure for U S troops to come home.

Gates and Casey also met commanders of the British force policing the south of the country.

REUTERS PB BS1915

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