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Pentagon chief seeking plan to close Guantanamo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Wednesday he wanted to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo but could not forge agreement inside the Bush administration.

A file photo shows detainees sitting in a holding area watched by military police at Camp X-Ray inside Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, January 11, 2002. REUTERS/U.S. Department of Defense/Petty Officer 1st class Shane T. McCoy/Handout

Gates said the Pentagon was still pushing the issue, but stumbling blocks remain, primarily over where al Qaeda and Taliban suspects would be held if not at the base in Cuba.

“I was unable to achieve agreement within the executive branch on how to proceed,” Gates told a U.S. Senate committee.

“I have asked our people not too long ago, a few weeks ago, to examine, put together our own proposal inside the Department of Defense that we could then perhaps use as a basis for discussion with, first of all, the State Department and above all the Justice Department and the (National Security Council).”

Washington has faced fierce criticism worldwide for the detention without charge -- often for years -- of suspected al Qaeda and Taliban members at the U.S. naval base in Cuba.

The United States holds 340 detainees at the Guantanamo Bay detention center, set up to handle prisoners captured by the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.

While members of the Bush administration have repeatedly said they would like to close the facility, some also argue it is needed in the U.S.-declared war on terrorism.

President George W. Bush has also blamed reluctance by other countries to take custody of terrorism suspects for America’s delay in shutting the facility.

Gates also said members of the Bush administration were divided on legislation that would grant prisoners legal protections -- a reference to his previously voiced concern that al Qaeda members held in the United States would try to use the U.S. justice system to seek release.

Asked by a senator if Congress should expect some movement toward Guantanamo’s closure, Gates said: “I hope you will, senator. I’m doing my best.”