Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said for the first time on Monday that he supported a pause in American troop reductions in Iraq. It was the most authoritative indication to date that the United States will maintain a large force here through 2008 and into the next presidential term.
His assertion, which was something of a surprise, immediately became an issue for Democrats in the presidential campaign, who have made American withdrawal from Iraq a major priority. Both Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama criticized Gates and reiterated their intention to bring all the troops home at a rapid pace if one of them wins the White House in November.
Meeting with top commanders here, Gates said that following the departure this summer of the five extra combat brigades sent last year in a “surge” to pacify the Baghdad area, the American command should assess whether further troop reductions would hurt security.
In practical terms, his assertion makes it likely that American troop levels in Iraq will not drop much below 130,000 this year — and certainly not to the 100,000 level advocated by some military officials and analysts worried about the protracted strain on the Army from long deployments in the nearly five-year-old Iraq war.
“I think that the notion of a brief period of consolidation and evaluation probably does make sense,” Gates told reporters in Baghdad.
While Gen. David H. Petraeus, the senior commander in Iraq, had hinted that he would recommend a freezing of troop levels, the endorsement by Gates suggested such a freeze was far more certain. President Bush has said he would place great emphasis on Petraeus’ recommendations.
Within the Bush administration, Gates had been seen as a potential counterpoint to Petraeus’ calls for caution about withdrawing troops.