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Gates backs pullout pause

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates endorsed yesterday the idea of a pause in the American troop drawdown this summer for the first time. .

Gates' comments followed a meeting with the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, who favors a temporary break in the troop reduction after the last of five extra brigades leave as planned in July. The brigades were deployed in 2007 to quell Iraq's bloodshed, and their departure will bring troop levels down to about 134,000, the lowest since January 2007.

Bloodshed has eased, but ground commanders such as Petraeus warn that it could surge anew if troops are pulled out too quickly. Some senior Pentagon officials favor a drawdown beyond the five brigades to relieve stress on troops, many of whom are on their third or fourth deployments. Others, particularly in the Army and Marine Corps, worry that strains on troops from long and multiple combat tours will grow worse unless the drawdown continues after July.

Gates previously had expressed hopes that conditions in Iraq would permit withdrawals to continue through the end of 2008, until there were about 100,000 forces in the country, but two hours of talks with Petraeus apparently changed his mind.

Speaking about Petraeus' desire for a pause, Gates said it "probably does make sense" for a "brief period."

He said the ultimate decision lay with President Bush.

Until now it had been unclear how Gates felt about the idea of a pause; he had said publicly a number of times that he hoped conditions in Iraq would permit a continuation of the drawdown in the second half of the year.

In his remarks here, Gates indicated that he had begun some time ago to lean in Petraeus' direction.

"In my own thinking I had been kind of headed in that direction as well," Gates said. "But one of the keys is how long is that period (of pause and evaluation) and then what happens after that."

Although violence has dropped in most of the country, insurgents remain active. In particular, they have stepped up attacks on supporters of the Awakening movement, started by Sunni Muslim tribal sheiks from Anbar province in late 2006 to fight Sunni insurgents.

The movement has spread across most of Iraq and spawned grass-roots police forces manned by Iraqis who are paid $10 a day by the U.S. military. Attacks on them and on Awakening leaders have doubled since October, according to the U.S. military.

Finding jobs for the Awakening forces is considered crucial to sustaining the security gains made in the past year. They number more than 70,000 and are credited with helping bring down violence in areas once plagued by Sunni Arab insurgents loyal to al-Qaida in Iraq. Most of the volunteers are Sunnis, and their backers accuse the Shiite-led government of blocking their hiring into the police force.

Also yesterday, the U.S. military announced the death of a U.S. soldier in Diyala province, north of Baghdad. A brief statement said that the soldier was killed Sunday by a roadside bomb and that two other troops were injured.

Tina Susman writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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