By Andrew Gray
LONDON, Oct 11 (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday played down a newspaper report that the U.S. Marine Corps was pressing to remove its forces from Iraq and switch to a leading role in Afghanistan.
"I have heard that they were beginning to think about that and that’s all that I’ve heard. I’ve seen no plan, no one’s come to me with any proposals about it," Gates told reporters in London after meeting his British counterpart, Des Browne.
The New York Times reported on Wednesday that the Marines’ suggestion was raised in a session last week convened by Gates for the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff and regional war-fighting commanders. It comes at a time when Washington’s key ally in Iraq, Britain, is drawing down its presence there.
"My understanding is that it’s — at this point — extremely preliminary thinking on the part of perhaps some staff people in the Marine Corps but I don’t think at this point it has any stature," Gates said.
Under the proposal, the newspaper said, the U.S. Army would concentrate on Iraq while the Marines would focus on Afghanistan.
Supporters of the idea argue that a realignment could allow the U.S. Army and Marines each to operate more efficiently in sustaining troop levels for two wars that have strained their forces, the New York Times said, citing senior military and Pentagon officials who requested anonymity.
The plan would require a major reshuffling and make the Marines the dominant American force in Afghanistan in a war that has broader public support than the one in Iraq, the Times said.
Some officials sympathetic to the army said such a realignment would help ease pressure on the army by allowing it to shift attention from Afghanistan into Iraq, the newspaper reported.
Currently, there are no major Marine units among the 26,000 or so U.S. forces in Afghanistan. In Iraq there are about 25,000 Marines among the more than 160,000 U.S. troops there.
Despite some signs of disquiet in Washington about British plans to withdraw troops from southern Iraq, Gates