WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged Sunday that political stability in Iraq won't likely happen before the Bush administration makes its critical September assessment on whether its war strategy is working.
But Gates declined to predict that a drawdown of U.S. military forces in such a scenario would happen by year's end. He cited some progress in reducing violence locally in regions such as Anbar Province, a former base of Al Qaeda's activities in Iraq.
"There is a possibility," Gates hedged, when asked in broadcast interviews if he considered a troop drawdown this year a "good possibility" or would bet on it.
He explained that Gen. David Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker in September would have to weigh some of the local successes against continuing problems in Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's national government.
"We're doing contingency planning on a lot of different possibilities," Gates said.
Gates' comments came as al-Maliki struggled to unite rival factions over the weekend. On Sunday, al-Maliki rejected the resignation of Cabinet ministers from the country's largest Sunni Arab bloc and asked the six ministers to rejoin his government.
Ministers from the Iraqi Accordance Front, which also holds 44 of parliament's 275 seats, quit al-Maliki's government on Wednesday. The move left only two Sunnis in the 40-member body, casting doubt on the government's "national unity" status and undermining the prime minister's efforts to pass laws the U.S. considers benchmarks that could lead to sectarian reconciliation.
In recent weeks, some U.S. military commanders have said that additional troops will be needed into 2008 and suggested that a verdict on President Bush's current troop increase be delayed until November.
But many Democrats and some Republicans in Congress, restive over the increasingly unpopular war, have made clear that they want a fundamental shift in war policy should the September assessments fail to show clear progress. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, also has dismissed any suggestion of waiting beyond September for a verdict on Bush's war policy.
On Sunday, Gates said he still expected the Bush administration to make a "strategic reassessment" in September on U.S. involvement in the four-year war should there be little political progress.
Gates, a member of the Iraq Study Group until he was nominated as defense secretary last November, also acknowledged that he probably would have sided with other members of the study group in urging the U.S. to reduce its military involvement should there be little political gains.
But he said since then, the U.S. has had unexpected, good progress on the local level in Iraq.
"Circumstances have actually changed in a different way," Gates said. "That's the process we're hoping will evolve over time."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice agreed.
Security "has improved some" because of U.S. and Iraqi cooperation, she said Sunday. Military commanders have attributed the decline in violence in Anbar to their efforts to work with local tribal leaders who grew sick of insurgency-spawned bloodshed and turned their backs on Al Qaeda.
"Clearly, too, we have a lot of work to do on the political side," she said. But, she added, "I would not underestimate the importance of the continuing work of the leaders of these very powerful parties in Iraq."
Rice said that the type of violence in Iraq due to "large-scale sectarian death squads" has diminished, but Al Qaeda-inspired violence still "can get off the big suicide car bomb" that kills civilians.
She said the Iraqi parliament probably could have passed a national oil reconciliation law with just a simple majority vote, but instead the lawmakers had wanted to reach a real consensus, which "makes a lot of sense."
A majority vote would get the law passed "but it would not have the support of all of the groups that are trying to do this," she said. "They don't want a 51-49 on constitutional reform."
Gates appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" and CNN's "Late Edition," while Rice spoke on "FOX News Sunday" and CBS's "Face the Nation."