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Gates says Iraq `endgame` in sight, but warns against hasty pullout

22 May, 2008

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WASHINGTON: US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said the "endgame" is now in sight in Iraq but warned of the costly consequences of withdrawing US forces too hastily.

"I fear that frustration over slow progress and dismay over sacrifices already made may result in decisions that are gratifying in the short term but very costly to us in the long term," he said.

Gates made the comments in a speech delivered to US special operations forces at their headquarters in Tampa, Florida in which he emphasized that they will be needed in Iraq and Afghanistan for a long time.

While he made no direct mention of calls by Democratic leaders for deep cuts in US forces next year under a new administration, Gates clearly had them in mind in cautioning against pulling out too quickly.

"We are now seeing what the end game in Iraq looks like -- with our forces drawing down over time, in a series of very complex battlefield rearrangements that slowly cede more responsibility for day-to-day security operations to the Iraqis," the prepared remarks said.

"It is a slow process -- slower than most would wish, myself included," he said. "But it is necessary if we are to get the endgame right."

The United States currrently has about 155,000 troops in Iraq, but the number is supposed to fall to about 140,000 by July.

General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, has insisted that the drawdown be halted at that point to see whether Iraqi security forces prove capable of taking up the slack.

Gates recalled the string past failures when security was handed over to Iraqi forces before they were ready -- "based on overly rosy predictions that didn`t necessarily line up with reality."

"We must be realistic about the challenges still facing Iraq: al Qaeda remains a lethal force -- a cancer -- always looking to metastasize and regenerate; armed militias still undermine the rule of law; and the government, while making great strides, still has a lot to learn about how to deliver basic services and security to its people," he said.

Gates argued that succeeding in Iraq and Afghanistan is crucial to the broader war on terrorism, which he portrayed as a long struggle against religiously motivated international terrorism.

"The task before us is to fracture and destroy this movement in its infancy -- to permanently reduce its ability to strike globally and catastrophically, while also discrediting and deflating its ideology.

"And our best opportunity to do this is in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said.

US success in those countries would "strike a decisive blow" against an Islamic extremist movement that has been "methodically built on the illusion of success," he said.

"We are at war in Afghanistan today because of mistakes we made - I, among others, made - in the endgame of the anti-Soviet war there in the late 1980s," he said.

"If we get the endgame wrong in Iraq, I predict the consequences will be far worse," he said.

He highlighted the role of US special operations forces, which now number about 55,000, noting that 80 percent of those deployed are in the Central Command area of operations.

"The eventual drawdown in Iraq is not the end of the mission for our elite forces. Far from it," he said.

"Even as our regular troops reduce their presence and are replaced by Iraqis, special operations force levels will remain fairly constant and be the connective tissue of the overall mission," he said.

"They will be in Iraq and Afghanistan for an extended period of time -- as a force to hunt and kill terrorists and also as a force to help train Iraqis and Afghans," he said.

End.

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