US not winning in Iraq-Pentagon nominee Gates
WASHINGTON, Dec 5 (Reuters) Robert Gates, U S President George W. Bush's choice to run the Pentagon, said today America was not winning in Iraq and the war would determine whether the Middle East faced a ''regional conflagration.'' Appearing at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gates said Bush wanted him to take a fresh look at the war and that all options were on the table.
''Our course over the next year or two will determine whether the American and Iraqi people and the next president of the United States will face a slowly and steadily improving situation in Iraq and in the region or will face the very real risk of a regional conflagration,'' Gates said.
Asked by Democratic Sen Carl Levin of Michigan if the United States was winning in Iraq, Gates replied: ''No, sir.'' Senators have said they expect Gates to be confirmed quickly, partly as they are eager to be rid of outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, an architect of the unpopular war.
Bush had Gates over to the White House for breakfast before the hearing and urged the Senate to move quickly.
''Bob Gates will be a fine secretary of defense,'' Bush told reporters with Gates at his side. ''I hope for speedy confirmation so he can get sworn in and get to work. Those who wear the uniform know they'll have a friend in Bob Gates.'' Many Democrats have advocated a phased withdrawal of U S troops from Iraq, to begin in four to six months, and say their victory in last month's congressional election gives that option a popular mandate.
Gates said he would consult widely on the options in Iraq but did not say which he favored.
''In my view, all options are on the table in terms of how we address this problem in Iraq,'' Gates said.
In his written testimony to the committee last month, however, Gates appeared to oppose a sudden pullout from Iraq.
''I believe that leaving Iraq in chaos would have dangerous consequences both in the region and globally for many years to come,'' he wrote.
The outgoing committee chairman, Virginia Republican John Warner, hopes the panel will send Gates' name to the full Senate in time for a Wednesday vote.
That would be the same day the Iraq Study Group is to make recommendations to Bush. Gates took part in the group before he was nominated to the Pentagon.
Gates, 63, has no Pentagon experience but he is a former CIA analyst who ran the agency from 1991-93 and is recognised as having a powerful intellect, even by his detractors. He left Washington in 1993 and is president of Texas A&M University.
Smooth sailing for him this week would be a contrast to his brutal 1991 confirmation hearings, when he was nominated to run the CIA and accused of having skewed 1980s intelligence to suit the Reagan administration's anti-Soviet views.
He also faced questioning over his alleged role in the ''Iran-Contra'' affair, involving secret U S arms sales to Iran and diversion of profits to Nicaragua's Contra rebels.
Reuters SI DB2144