WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates raised the possibility Friday of cutting U.S. troop levels in Iraq to 100,000 by the end of next year, well beyond the cuts President Bush has approved.
Stressing that he was expressing a hope, not an administration plan, Gates said it was possible that conditions in Iraq would improve enough to merit much deeper troop cuts than are currently scheduled for 2008.
Asked at a news conference whether he was referring to lowering today's level of about 169,000 U.S. troops to about 100,000 by the end of next year, Gates replied, "That would be the math." He quickly added, however, that because "there is no script" in war, his hoped-for cuts could vanish.
It was the first time a member of Bush's war cabinet had publicly suggested such deep reductions, perhaps offering a conciliatory hand to anti-war Democrats and some wary Republicans in Congress who have been pushing for troop reductions, a change in the U.S. mission and an end to the war.
Democratic leaders seized on a White House report sent Friday to Congress as evidence that Bush's war policy is failing. The assessment showed that the Iraqi government was making satisfactory progress toward meeting nine of 18 political and military goals -- only one more satisfactory grade than in a July report.
"As hard as they may have tried to spin it, today's assessment by the White House on the political situation in Iraq once again shows that the president's flawed escalation policy is not working," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a statement. "It certainly does not justify keeping 130,000 soldiers mired in an open-ended civil war as the president has chosen to do."
Next week, the Senate is expected to resume debate on anti-war legislation.
Gates used his news conference to launch an attack on efforts by Democrats to force Bush to change course in Iraq by imposing new restrictions on how the Pentagon uses or manages the armed forces.
Gates was particularly pointed in his criticism of a proposal by Sen. James Webb, D-Va., to require that troops be given as much time at their home station as on deployments to the war front. Today, active-duty Army units are on 15-month deployments with a promise of no more than 12 months rest, and Marines who spend seven or more months at war sometimes get six months or less at home.
Gates said that while he believed such proposals are well-intentioned, they have serious flaws. He said, for example, that Webb's amendment, if enacted, would force him to consider again extending tours in Iraq.
"We would have to accept gaps in capability as units that rotate home aren't replaced right away for periods perhaps of weeks," Gates said. It also might put troops' lives in greater danger by reducing opportunities for incoming units to get acquainted with their responsibilities by working for a few weeks with outgoing units, he said.
"The other message that I worry that some of the amendments send is that it sends a signal to potential adversaries that we're stretched so thinly and that we are so strained that we cannot adequately respond to crises elsewhere in the world," Gates said. "And that's not a correct view, if others should take it, but it is a worry."
In a visit to the Marine base at Quantico, Va., on Friday, Bush said commanders in Iraq would "have the flexibility and the troops needed to achieve the mission," and he urged Congress to heed the advice of Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, not to withdraw too speedily.
"I also expect the Congress to support our men and women in uniform and their families," Bush said.
Gates, striking an optimistic note, said that if the current plan for troop withdrawals between now and next summer are carried out fully, it is possible that some U.S. units will not have to serve a full 15 months.
"Maybe 14 months, 14 and a half months, 13 and a half months," he said. "We just don't know right now. It will all depend on a lot of ifs. But just looking at the mathematics of it, that's a possibility."
Gates opened the Pentagon news conference with an appeal for a bipartisan consensus on a way forward in Iraq.
"The consequences of American failure in Iraq at this point would, I believe, be disastrous not just for Iraq but for the region, for the United States and for the world," Gates said. "No discussion of where and how we go from here can avoid this stark reality."
Gates also said he saw early signs that Shiites in Iraq may be starting to turn against Shiite extremists in the Mahdi Army who have gone too far with their violent ways -- in the same way that a growing number of ordinary Sunnis have revolted against Sunni extremists to bring a new peace to Anbar province.
Bush announced Thursday that he had approved a plan recommended by Petraeus to reduce troop levels from the current 20 combat brigades to 15 brigades by July. Gates said it was too early for Petraeus or others to forecast with confidence the timing and scale of any additional cuts.
Bush has ordered Petraeus to make a further assessment and fresh recommendations next March.
"My hope is that when he does his assessment in March that General Petraeus will be able to say that he thinks that the pace of the drawdowns can continue at the same rate in the second half of the year as in the first half of the year," Gates said.
"That's my hope," Gates said, adding that experience has shown that hopes can be quickly dashed in a war that has been far more difficult and costly than anyone in the administration had expected.
If the troop reductions through July 2008 that Bush has approved are carried out fully, the U.S. force in Iraq may be larger by several thousand troops that it was when Bush's troop buildup began early this year. That is because at least some of the roughly 8,500 support troops that went with 21,500 extra combat troops between February and June are likely to be kept in place, officials said.