WASHINGTON, Sep 15 (Reuters) US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he hoped troop levels in Iraq could be reduced from the current 169,000 to about 100,000 by January 2009, when the next US president will take office.
President George W Bush has ordered gradual troop reductions in Iraq through the first half of 2008, under a plan from the US commander in Iraq, Gen David Petraeus, to withdraw five combat brigades and several Marine units by mid-July.
Gates said he hoped Petraeus would be able to recommend an additional drawdown of about five combat brigades - somewhere around 20,000 more troops - in the second half of next year.
''My hope is that when he does his assessment in March ...
Gen. Petraeus will be able to say that he thinks that the pace of drawdowns can continue at the same rate in the second half of the year as in the first half of the year,'' Gates said.
Speaking at a Pentagon news conference, Gates cautioned that any drawdown would depend on conditions in Iraq.
But asked if withdrawing another five combat brigades in the second half of next year would leave roughly 100,000 troops in Iraq in January 2009, Gates replied: ''That would be the math.'' A combat brigade ranges from 3,000 to 5,000 troops and the United States currently has 20 brigades in Iraq. Withdrawal of combat brigades normally would be accompanied by a reduction in various support forces.
Gates cast the troop reduction plan as the start of a transition in the US mission in Iraq.
He called on Democrats, who have sought a faster withdrawal, to support Petraeus' plan and warned against proposals from some lawmakers that would reduce the number of troops available for deployment to Iraq.
'RECTIFY AN INEQUITY' Specifically, Gates listed problems with a measure from Democratic Sen Jim Webb of Virginia to give troops more time off between tours of duty. That, the secretary said, would require the military to extend tours of duty for units already in the war zone.
''It is fully to be expected that the administration would oppose this amendment,'' Webb said after Gates' comments. ''The intention of the amendment is to rectify an inequity brought about by administration policies.'' Gates had offered little indication of his thoughts about the next stage of the more than four-year-old war before Petraeus presented his recommendations to Congress this week.
But yesterday, he identified his objectives, saying the next phase had to secure gains made by the buildup of US troops this year and send a signal that the United States would remain ''the most significant power'' in the Middle East over the long term.
Gates also offered a vision of the future role of US forces who stay in Iraq over the long term. He said their mission would include counter-terrorism activities and support and training for Iraqis in border control operations.
He also said the next steps in Iraq had to ''avoid even the appearance of American failure or defeat in Iraq,'' warning that if al Qaeda could claim victory in Iraq, it would embolden Islamist militants even more than their victory over the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
''I believe it would empower them worldwide far, far more than their victory over the Soviets,'' said Gates, a career Soviet expert at the CIA. ''The regional consequences would be significant and highly destabilizing.'' Reuters SZ VP0410