Robert Gates hopes to continue US troop cuts in Iraq

Friday, February 22, 2008

Robert Gates

Speaking aboard a military aircraft, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that he intends to continue US troop reduction in Iraq over the next 10 months, although he and other commanders are leaning to a July pause in cuts.

Secretary Gates was en route to attend the Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations in Canberra, Australia. The meetings, also known as AUSMIN, have been held annually since 1985.

Australia has recently announced plans to withdraw troops from Iraq, but Gates indicated that this would not be a source of friction between the two allies.

"We're concerned about the stress on our own forces. The Australians are confronting that challenge themselves," he told reporters aboard the plane.

Gates said a brief pause "is probably necessary in order to be able to assess the pacing of any subsequent drawdowns."

Although he did not say how long a pause would be, his comments suggested that reductions could begin again before the end of the year.

Joel Fitzgibbon

"I don't think there's a need to be doing any trust-building at the AUSMIN meeting tomorrow," said Australian Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon on Friday. "The relationship remains very, very strong," he said. "The level of trust has never been higher and I look forward to working forward together with our American friends."

Willam Fallon

"As the winter accelerates into the springtime and the summer, that's going to increase in pace, and we're hopeful that we can continue that in a measured way that enables us to turn over the bulk of the responsibility to the Iraqis, but at the same time we don't let this thing fall back down the hole again," Admiral William Fallon said. Fallon, the commander of United States Central Command, was speaking today in Ottawa, Canada at a defense conference. He made no mention of a pause.

Another topic at AUSMIN will be the military effort in Afghanistan, but Gates says he is not worried that Australia, now headed by Prime Minster Kevin Rudd, will reduce troop levels there.

"I've had two meetings with their defense minister at this point, and I don't have any sense of a change in direction in Afghanistan," Gates said.

Australia is expected, according to US defense officials, to request a greater role in decision-making process. The International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan is led by NATO, of which Australia is not a member.