Gates sees fewer troops in 2007 if Iraq plan works
WASHINGTON, Jan 12 (Reuters) The United States could start withdrawing forces from Iraq this year if the additional troops being sent to Baghdad reduce violence significantly, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said today.
''If these operations actually work you could begin to see a lightening of the US footprint both in Baghdad and Iraq itself,'' Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Defending the President George W Bush's plan for the war, Gates cautioned that adding more US forces would not end sectarian violence in Iraq.
But if it lowers the violence ''significantly'' and the Iraqi government fulfills its promises, ''then you could have a situation later this year where you could actually begin withdrawing.'' Still, lawmakers challenged the plan to send an additional 21,000 US soldiers and Marines into the most violent areas of Iraq.
They said it depended far too heavily on the Iraqi government keeping promises it had failed to keep before.
''Look at the track record of the Iraqi government in meeting some of its past benchmarks and promises,'' said Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
He listed commitments that were not kept, such as a pledge from Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that the government would disband the sectarian militias plaguing Baghdad and that Iraq would take over security for all its provinces by the end of 2006.
POOR RECORD Gates admitted Iraq's poor performance in meeting its goals. But he said he thought they were serious now.
''The record of fulfilling their commitments is not an encouraging one,'' he said. ''But I will say this. They really do seem to be eager to take control of this security.'' Senators also questioned whether military commanders believed in Bush's plan given their previous, publicly stated rejection of calls for more troops.
Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, insisted that he supported the Bush plan and that it provided enough troops to establish security.
But he too premised his confidence on an expectation that the Iraqi government would deliver on its commitments, especially a promise to prohibit Iraqi politicians from interfering in military action against sectarian militias.
''I am confident that, given the Iraqis delivering on their promises and the economic legs of the stool, that the military part of this plan is sufficiently resourced,'' he said.
Both Gates and Pace said the United States did not need to attack targets in Iran to counter Iranian networks that Washington says support Iraq's insurgency.