Pentagon chief urges caution in Iraq pullout

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday urged the next U.S. president, who will take office in January, to proceed cautiously in withdrawing troops from Iraq despite an 80 percent drop in violence there.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates (R) testifies at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, on Capitol Hill in Washington September 23, 2008. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

“I worry the great progress that our troops and the Iraqis have made has the potential to override a measure of caution born of uncertainty,” Gates told a congressional hearing in Washington.

The Iraq war is one of the main issues in the November U.S. presidential campaign. Democratic candidate Barack Obama has called for combat troops to be withdrawn within 16 months, while Republican rival John McCain has warned that pulling them out too quickly could undo the security gains.

Gates acknowledged the disagreement over how quickly to pull out U.S. forces from Iraq, but said the modest troop withdrawal plan announced by President George W. Bush earlier this month was the best way forward.

“The continuing but carefully modulated reductions the president has ordered represent the right direction and the right course of action,” he said. “They preserve a broad range of options for the next commander in chief.”

Bush announced on September 8 that 8,000 troops would be withdrawn by February without being replaced, leaving about 138,000 troops in place.

Gates said the troop withdrawal was already under way. The pullout of 3,400 noncombat forces, including aviation personnel, construction engineers and military police, would be completed in January, while a Marine battalion would return home in November and an army brigade combat team by February.

“I would urge our nation’s leaders to implement strategies that, while reducing our presence in Iraq steadily, are cautious and flexible and take into account the advice of our senior commanders and military leaders,” Gates said.

Iraq’s government, which is negotiating a new security deal with the United States, has said it wants all U.S. forces to be withdrawn by 2011.

Gates said that while overall violence in Iraq was down 80 percent, military commanders worried the security gains could still unravel, citing the possibility of violence in the lead-up to provincial elections, continued Iranian support for Shi’ite militant groups and the ever-present threat posed by al Qaeda in Iraq.

Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the hearing that Iran continued to train members of Shi’ite militant cells called “special groups”, although the flow of weapons and fighters across the border had decreased.

Reporting by Ross Colvin; Editing by Philip Barbara