(Adds more comments from Gates, background)
By Andrew Gray
WASHINGTON, Dec 2 (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who will stay on under Barack Obama, said on Tuesday he supported the president-elect’s Iraq policy but declined to back his proposed timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Gates, who had previously insisted he wanted to bow out at the end of the Bush administration, also vowed he would not be a “caretaker” under Obama and said no time limit had been put on how long he would continue to serve.
“The president-elect and I agreed that this would be open-ended,” said Gates, introduced on Monday as Obama’s pick for the Pentagon in a national security team that also includes Sen. Hillary Clinton as his choice for secretary of state.
The decision by the Democratic president-elect to retain Gates, a Republican, was historic. Gates said it was the first time a new U.S. president had chosen to retain the secretary of defense from a previous administration.
Gates, a former CIA director, was hired by President George W. Bush in late 2006 primarily to help turn around a deeply unpopular Iraq war that was almost out of control.
He oversaw a surge of 30,000 extra U.S. troops that helped produce a dramatic decline in violence and he has been widely praised for repairing relations with the military, Congress and the media that frayed under his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld.
But Obama and the Bush administration had clashed over withdrawals from Iraq, where the United States still has 146,000 troops, more than five years after the 2003 invasion.
Obama and other Democrats have demanded a pullout timetable while the Bush administration insisted any troop cuts should be based on commanders’ assessments of the security situation.
Obama restated on Monday that be believed U.S. combat troops could be withdrawn in 16 months.
Gates declined to say whether he backed the 16-month goal but indicated he was comfortable with Obama’s position because the president-elect had pledged to act responsibly and listen to U.S. commanders.
“I would subscribe to what the president-elect said yesterday in Chicago,” he said.
“He repeated his desire to try and get our combat forces out within 16 months. But he also said that he wanted to have a responsible drawdown. And he also said that he was prepared to listen to his commanders,” Gates said.
“So I think that that’s exactly the position the president-elect should be in.”
Both Obama and Gates are committed to sending more troops to Afghanistan, where insurgent violence has risen sharply.
Gates pledged to give personal attention to a wide range of issues, from the needs of wounded troops to modernizing weapons systems.
“We need to take a very hard look at the way we go about acquisition and procurement,” he said.
But Gates declined to comment on specific weapons programs or his position on the purchase of additional top-of-the-line F-22 fighter jets, made by Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N).
Gates said he expected Obama’s transition team to suggest nominees for almost all the political posts at the Pentagon. He would interview nominees and make recommendations but the final decision would be Obama‘s.
Gates’ deputy Gordon England, who took the post under Rumsfeld, announced on Tuesday he would not stay on. (Editing by Mohammad Zargham)