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Gates softens opposition to 16-month Iraq timetable

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Dec 2, 2008
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates Tuesday softened his opposition to a 16-month timetable for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq advocated by president-elect Barack Obama.

"I am less concerned about that timetable," he told a news conference at the Pentagon a day after Obama announced Gates had agreed to stay on as defense secretary in a Democratic administration.

Gates said US commanders were already "looking at what the implications of that are in terms of the potential for accelerating the drawdown and -- and in terms of how we meet our obligations to the Iraqis."

How Gates would handle his differences with Obama over the pace of the drawdown has been a key question ever since advisers to the president-elect suggested he might be asked to work in an Obama administration.

He acknowledged that being the first defense secretary ever to be kept on by a newly elected president, much less one from another party, makes his a "unique situation."

"I think the president-elect has made it pretty clear that he wanted a team of people around him who would tell him what they thought and give him their best advice. I think he has assembled that team," he said.

"There will, no doubt, be differences among the team. And it will be up to the president to make the decisions," he said.

Gates told reporters that he and Obama agreed his tenure would be open ended.

"I have no intention of being a caretaker secretary," he said.

Gates has insisted in recent months that he could not conceive of conditions under which he would stay on.

But he met discreetly with Obama for the first time November 11 in Washington after the president-elect had visited George Bush at the White House.

"We actually met in the fire station at National Airport and they pulled the trucks out so that our cars could go in," Gates said.

"I spent a long time hoping the question would never be popped," he said. "I then hoped he'd change his mind. And yesterday it became a reality."

All other political appointees at the Defense Department are subject to replacement by the new administration, he said.

Gordon England, the deputy defense secretary under both Gates and former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, announced Tuesday that he would be leaving.

Gates wrapped his position on Iraq in some ambiguity in his remarks to reporters.

He said that while Obama had repeated his desire to get US combat troops out by the end of 2011, "he also said that he wanted to have a responsible drawdown."

"And he also said that he was prepared to listen to his commanders," he said.

"And it's within that framework that I think it is agreeable," he added.

Gates emphasized that a timetable calling for the withdrawal of all US troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 already had been set under a status of forces agreement reached with Baghdad.

"It's a longer one, but it's a definite timetable. So that bridge has been crossed," he said.

"And so the question is how do we do this in a responsible way. And nobody wants to put at risk the gains that have been achieved with so much sacrifice on the part of our soldiers and the Iraqis at this point," he said.

Gates concurred with Obama's view that South Asia is the region that now poses the greatest threat of attack to the United States, observing that "we basically have our foot on the neck of Al Qaeda in Iraq."

He said Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, was in the region.

On Guantanamo, Gates reiterated that it would be possible to close the US war on terror detention center there but it would require new legislation by Congress.

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