WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Friday raised the possibility of cutting U.S. troop levels in Iraq to 100,000 by the end of next year, well beyond the cuts President Bush has approved.
Stressing that he was expressing his hope, not an administration plan, Gates said it was possible conditions in Iraq could improve enough to merit much deeper troop cuts than are currently scheduled for 2008.
Asked at a news conference whether he was referring to going from today's level of about 169,000 to about 100,000 U.S. troops by the end of next year, Gates replied, "That would be the math."
It was the first time a member of Bush's war cabinet had publicly suggested such deep reductions, although many in Congress have pushed hard for big cuts to begin bringing the war to a conclusion.
Bush announced Thursday that he had approved a plan recommended by Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, to reduce troop levels from the current 20 combat brigades to 15 brigades by July. Gates said it was too early for Petraeus or others to forecast with confidence any additional cuts.
Petraeus said he plans to make a further assessment and recommendations next March.
"My hope is that when he does his assessment in March that General Petraeus will be able to say that he thinks that the pace of the drawdowns can continue at the same rate in the second half of the year as in the first half of the year," Gates said.
"That's my hope," Gates said, adding that experience has shown that hopes can be quickly dashed in a war that has been far more difficult and costly than anyone in the administration had expected.
The defense secretary confirmed that he was referring to the possibility of cutting from the projected level of 15 combat brigades in July to 10 brigades at the end of 2008, and that this would translate to roughly 100,000 troops.
Gates opened the Pentagon news conference with an appeal for a bipartisan consensus on a way forward in Iraq.
"The consequences of American failure in Iraq at this point would, I believe, be disastrous not just for Iraq but for the region, for the United States and for the world," Gates said in his first Pentagon news conference since mid-July.
"No discussion of where and how we go from here can avoid this stark reality," he added.
Gates asserted that all senior military leaders fully agreed with the recommendations Petraeus presented to Bush and to Congress, including his proposal to begin a modest troop withdrawal this year.
Seated beside Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the soon-to-retire chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gates said he deliberately kept quiet in public about his own opinions regarding a way forward in Iraq.
Gates made a point of noting that Petraeus, in his congressional testimony Monday and Tuesday, said troop reductions would continue beyond July 2008, although at a pace yet to be determined.
Gates also raised the possibility that some Army units in Iraq would not have to serve their full 15-month tours.
"Just looking at the mathematics of it, that's a possibility," he said.