Defence chief 'seeks long-term Iraq force',00.html

From correspondents in Washington
July 03, 2007

US DEFENCE Secretary Robert Gates is seeking a political deal in Washington to trade off troop cuts in Iraq for support for a long-term, smaller presence there, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Citing unnamed US government officials, the Journal said Mr Gates and some political allies were pursuing political support for maintaining a US military presence in Iraq to continue the fight against al-Qaeda.

The trade-off, according to the report, was a commitment to slashing back troop levels - now about 155,000 - by the end of President George W. Bush's term in office in January 2009.

Mr Gates's goal was to mollify the strong US sentiment for a pullout of US forces, while not abandoning Iraq altogether.

"The complicating factor is how long the administration will stick with its 'surge' strategy of keeping high levels of troops in Iraq to try to tamp down violence there. On this issue, the administration - and even the military - is deeply divided," the Journal said.

In Mr Gates's plan, the US would trim back its presence and its goals to fighting al-Qaeda and simply containing a civil war that might erupt, rather than the current aim of defeating all insurgents and ending the conflict between Iraqi groups, mostly aligned on Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim lines.

"The change in thinking underscores administration officials' increasing concern that rapidly diminishing support for the war among Americans and in Congress could spark a precipitous withdrawal," the newspaper said.

"Administration officials fear such an outcome could endanger US national security by leaving a failed state in the hands of Shi'ite and Sunni Islamic extremists."