Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday he would recommend a veto of a Senate proposal that would give troops more rest between deployments in Iraq, branding it a dangerous "backdoor way" to draw down forces.
Democrats pledged to push ahead with the plan by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., and expressed confidence they could round up the votes to pass it, although perhaps not by the margin to override a veto.
"The operational tempo that our forces are under is excruciatingly difficult for our soldiers, Marines, all of our personnel and their families," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. "They deserve the same amount of time back home as they stay in the field."
The comments represented the latest political clash over the future course of the war. Last week, President Bush announced plans for a limited drawdown but indicated that combat forces would stay in Iraq well past 2008.
With the Senate expected to resume debate this week on anti-war legislation, Gates sharpened his criticism of Webb's proposal. It would require troops get as much time at their home station as their deployments to the war front.
Gates was asked in broadcast interviews about recommending a veto to Bush should the proposal pass. "Yes I would," the Pentagon chief said.
"If it were enacted, we would have force management problems that would be extremely difficult and, in fact, affect combat effectiveness and perhaps pose greater risk to our troops," he said.
Supporters of Webb's proposal say it has at least 57 of the 60 votes needed for passage. It would need 67 votes to override a veto.
Separate proposal seeks mission restriction
A separate proposal by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., seeks to restrict the mission of troops to fighting terrorist and training the Iraqi security force.
"The president has dangled a carrot in front of the American people talking about troop reductions," Levin said. "But, again, it is an illusion of a change of course and the American people are not buying it. My colleagues are not buying it."
"I think we have a good chance of getting to the 60 votes to call for a change in policy. I hope we get there in the next couple of weeks," he said.
If Webb's amendment were enacted, Gates said it would force him to consider again extending tours in Iraq. He explained that the military commanders would be constrained in the use of available forces, creating gaps and forcing greater use of an already strained National Guard and Reserve.
"It would be extremely difficult for us to manage that. It really is a backdoor way to try and force the president to accelerate the drawdown," Gates said. "Again, the drawdowns have to be based on the conditions on the ground."
"We would have to be looking at gapping units where there would — a unit pulling out would not be immediately replaced by another," he added. "So you'd have an area of combat operations where no U.S. forces would be present for a period, and the troops coming in would then face a much more difficult situation."
Active-duty Army units today are on 15-month deployments with a promise of no more than 12 months rest. Marines who spend seven or more months at war sometimes get six months or less at home.
"We're having difficulty trying to keep to my policy of 15 months deployed, 12 months at home, for the active force and a full-year mobilization limit on the Guard and Reserve. We're having enough trouble trying to make that work, without the strictures of legislation," Gates said.
Future troop size unknown
Bush said last week that he had approved a plan by Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, to withdraw 5,700 troops from Iraq by the holidays and reduce the force from 20 combat brigades to 15 brigades by next July.
The president has ordered Petraeus to make a further assessment and fresh recommendations in March. There are about 169,000 U.S. troops in Iraq today.
Gates on Friday raised the possibility of cutting troop levels to 100,000 or so by the end of next year, well beyond the cuts Bush announced, in what appeared to be a conciliatory gesture to anti-war Democrats and some wary Republicans who are pushing for troop reductions and an end to the war.
But on Sunday, Gates said he could not say how large the force would be in the coming years, stressing that it would depend on conditions on the ground and whether the security situation in Iraq had improved dramatically.
In the long term, Gates said, U.S. forces would focus on border security, fighting terrorists and training and equipping Iraqi security forces.
"The idea is that we would have a much more limited role in Iraq for some protracted period of time, a stabilizing force, a force that would be a fraction of the size of what we have there now," Gates said.
Compared to role in South Korea
Bush has compared America's future in Iraq to the peacekeeping role U.S. troops play in South Korea, where they have been stationed for some five decades.
Gates, meanwhile, said he disagreed with assertions by former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan in his new book that the Iraq war "is largely about oil."
"I've known him a long time and I disagree with that," Gates said. "I wasn't here for the decision-making process that initiated it, that started the war. I know the same allegation was made about the Gulf War in 1991 and I just don't believe it's true," he said.
"It's really about stability in the Gulf. It's about rogue regimes trying to develop weapons of mass destruction. It's about aggressive dictators," Gates said. "After all, Saddam Hussein launched wars against several of his neighbors. He was trying to develop weapons of mass destruction, certainly when we went in, in 1991."
Gates spoke on "Fox News Sunday" and "This Week" on ABC. Reed was on ABC and Levin appeared on "Face the Nation" on CBS.