Gates eyes pause in US troop cuts in Iraq

United States Defence Secretary Robert Gates said in Baghdad on Monday he was in favour of a short pause in troop drawdowns from Iraq after about 30 000 soldiers have been sent home by July.

Gates said the security situation in Baghdad remained “fragile”, a comment echoed on the streets of the capital, which was rocked by two car bombings that left 19 people dead just as he was winding up his surprise trip to Iraq.

“I think that the notion of a brief period of consolidation and evaluation probably does make sense,” he told reporters after a two-hour meeting with the US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus.

“I must say, in my own thinking, I am headed in that direction as well but one of the keys is how long is that period and what happens after that. It still has to be determined and decided by the president.”

The 157 000-strong US force in the insurgency-wracked country is currently on track to come down from 19 brigades to 15 by July, a reduction of at least 20 000 troops plus another 7 000 to 10 000 members of support units, according to military commanders in Iraq.

Gates has previously expressed the hope that the drawdown can continue to about 10 brigades, or about 100 000 troops, by year’s end.

Petraeus is supposed to make recommendations in April on US force levels for the second half of the year. Last month he suggested in an interview with CNN that he will ask for a pause in the drawdown to assess whether security can be maintained with fewer troops.

It is not clear how long a pause Petraeus has in mind, but reports have varied from 30 to 90 days.

“I had a good meeting with General Petraeus; we met for about two hours talking about his evaluation.
I feel a lot smarter now,” said Gates, who is on his seventh visit to Iraq.

“We have a process in place, as we indicated before. General Petraeus will make his recommendations in March to the president and Central Command and the Joint Chiefs will make their recommendation and I will make my recommendation.”

Gates arrived in Iraq shortly before the first anniversary of a US troop surge designed to improve security in Baghdad, although the country continues to battle a deadly insurgency.

On Monday, two car bombs exploded almost simultaneously in the capital’s southern neighbourhood of Jadriyah, killing at least 19 people and wounding 45.

A security official said the blasts occurred at the busy al-Huriyah square near an office that handles the affairs of tribal sheikhs from across Iraq.

Witnesses said a group of tribal “Awakening” anti-Al-Qaeda front members were outside the office at the time and among the 30 people wounded.—AFP

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