WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Friday that he hopes to cut the U.S. force in Iraq to nearly half its current size by the end of 2008, a more dramatic reduction than that endorsed Thursday by President Bush and a new indication of divergent viewpoints within the administration and the military.
Bush and Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, proposed modest reductions to bring U.S. troop levels to between 130,000 and 140,000 by next July. Although Petraeus said additional reductions are possible by the end of the year, Gates went further Friday and said he hoped troop levels would drop all the way to 100,000.
Gates, an early skeptic of the troop buildup begun earlier this year, took pains Friday to emphasize that the Bush administration’s top military advisers were in agreement over the direction ahead in Iraq. But Gates’ comments reflect underlying rifts within the military, between commanders in the field and those at the Pentagon, as the war enters its latest phase.
Petraeus has favored higher troop numbers to back U.S. military aims, while Gates and other military leaders have expressed a preference for lower numbers out of concern for readiness, training and recruitment, according to administration and military officials.
Also Friday, in sharp contrast to the positive tone that Bush struck in his address, the White House reported that Iraq’s leaders had made little headway over the past two months toward meeting 18 benchmarks for progress aimed at ending high levels of sectarian violence.
Bush said Thursday that emerging success in Iraq had made it possible for him to start to withdraw troops, beginning with 5,700 by December. The president acknowledged that Shiite Muslim Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government had failed to achieve national reconciliation, but he said progress in local politics would lead to improvements at the national level.
The administration said in July – in the first of two reports required by law – that Iraq had made satisfactory progress toward eight benchmarks, unsatisfactory progress on another eight and the remaining two couldn’t be judged because conditions weren’t ripe.
In Friday’s second report, it found new progress as of Sept. 1 on one of the goals, making progress satisfactory on nine, unsatisfactory on seven and the same two still impossible to judge.
That score card sounded more optimistic than one that the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan auditing arm of Congress, issued last week, although the reports had different approaches.
The Bush administration’s report judged whether progress was being made toward meeting the goals; the GAO assessed whether the goals had been met. It found three met, four partially met and 11 not met.
The improvement the White House reported since July was based on an agreement by leaders of Iraq’s main sects to support a law that would let former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party work for the government.