WASHINGTON U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Wednesday the war in Iraq had entered its "endgame" and urged the next U.S. president to continue a cautious approach to troop cuts.
"Our decisions today and in the months ahead will be critical to regional stability and our national security interests for years to come," Gates told U.S. lawmakers.
"I have cautioned that no matter what you think about the origins of the war in Iraq, we must get the endgame there right. I believe we have now entered that endgame," he said.
Gates said a spiral of violence had been reversed and Iraq had made progress toward political stability over the past year and a half but the situation remained fragile and commanders were not yet sure security gains would endure.
President George W. Bush announced on Tuesday a modest cut in U.S. forces in Iraq, saying 8,000 troops would come home by February because violence there has dropped substantially.
Some of the units earmarked to replace those forces will go to Afghanistan, where insurgent violence is rising, but some 138,000 U.S. troops would remain in Iraq.
Bush, who met with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani at the White House on Wednesday, said both the United States and Iraq wanted to reduce the number of American troops there.
"Iraqis want there to be fewer U.S. troops, the United States want there to be fewer U.S. troops but both of us want to realize that vision based upon success," Bush said.
As Bush leaves office in January, any decision on major withdrawals from Iraq will rest with his successor, Republican John McCain or Democrat Barack Obama.
McCain backs Bush's view that Iraq has priority and troops should pull out only when commanders say it is safe to do so.
Obama wants to pull U.S. combat units out of Iraq within 16 months and to deploy urgently more forces to Afghanistan, where the United States has some 33,000 troops.
"I worry that the great progress our troops and the Iraqis have made has the potential to override a measure of caution," Gates told the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee.
Gates has sought to build bridges with Democrats since replacing the combative Donald Rumsfeld in late 2006. But he has also repeatedly warned that a U.S. defeat in Iraq would do great damage to U.S. credibility in the Middle East.
His latest remarks appeared aimed particularly at Obama and other Democrats.
"As we proceed deeper into the endgame, I would urge our nation's leaders to implement strategies that, while steadily reducing our presence in Iraq, are cautious and flexible and take into account the advice of our senior commanders and military leaders," he said.
"I would also urge our leaders to keep in mind that we should expect to be involved in Iraq for years to come, although in changing and increasingly limited ways," he said.
(Editing by Kristin Roberts and David Wiessler)