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Gates rows back from 100,000 target for US troops in Iraq

by Jitendra JoshiSun Sep 16, 4:44 PM ET

Defense Secretary Robert Gates Sunday backed off a suggestion that US forces in Iraq could go down to 100,000 troops next year as Democrats battled for a faster exit from the war-torn nation.

Both sides of the political fracture in Washington were girding for a new week of clashes in Congress over Iraq strategy after President George W. Bush announced a limited drawdown of troops last Thursday.

Gates played down his suggestion made Friday that US forces in Iraq could be cut to about 100,000 by the end of 2008, from their current level of nearly 170,000.

"What I said was I hoped the conditions would improve in Iraq to the extent that not only could we complete the drawdowns that General (David) Petraeus would like to make, but we would continue thereafter," Gates said on Fox News.

"So everything depends on the conditions on the ground."

Bush said Thursday he was adopting recommendations by his Iraq commander Petraeus to cut force levels after security advances notably in Anbar province, where tribal leaders have joined the fight against Al-Qaeda extremists.

As a result, Bush said, some 5,700 US troops will come home by Christmas, and the number of combat brigades will drop from 20 to 15 -- a decrease of about 21,500 combat troops -- by mid-2008.

With other regular rotations, that would take US troop levels down to about 130,000, roughly their number before Bush launched a military "surge" in Iraq in February.

Angry Democrats argued the reductions were a cosmetic change forced upon the president by military necessity.

US troops are now dying in the "middle of a civil war" while the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki dithers on political reconciliation, top Democratic senators said Sunday.

Presidential contender Joseph Biden said it was high time to end "this continued failed policy that's chewing up American lives, chewing up American dollars, with no end in sight."

In Washington Saturday, several thousand protestors marched from the White House to Congress, waving placards demanding an end to the war, the return of US troops, and the impeachment of Bush.

despite grabbing control of Congress last November, Democrats have repeatedly failed in their attempts to impose binding deadlines for the withdrawal of most combat troops from Iraq.

This week, the opposition party is to launch a new search for 60 Senate votes, the magic and so-far elusive threshold needed to challenge Bush's strategy to prolong the war.

Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate's armed services committee, said it remained to be seen if enough Republicans would come on board.

"But we hope so, because the American public wants us to change course. And what the president is offering is the illusion of change, not real change," he said on CBS television.

One option Democrats are putting to wavering Republicans is a legal amendment that would require US troops to spend the same amount of time at home as on their last tour of duty in Iraq, typically 15 months.

That is effectively a back-door way to redeploy thousands more troops out of Iraq. In his weekly radio address, however, Bush vowed to fight on.

"If we were to be driven out of Iraq, extremists of all strains would be emboldened," the president said.

"By contrast, a free Iraq will deny Al-Qaeda a safe haven. It will counter the destructive ambitions of Iran. And it will serve as a partner in the fight against terrorism."

Gates said the troop reductions mark the start of a transition of the US military mission in Iraq to a residual long-term force that would combat terrorism, support Iraqi forces and protect the country's borders.

But he insisted that the Pentagon's hands must not be tied by Democratic measures such as the troop rotation amendment submitted by Senator Jim Webb, a hawkish Vietnam veteran.

Asked if he would recommend that Bush veto the bill if it passes Congress, Gates replied: "Yes, I would."

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