WASHINGTON—President Bush's choice as new Pentagon chief told a Senate committee on Tuesday that the United States isn't winning in Iraq and that neighboring countries could be sucked into a regional war if the violence isn't contained within two years.
The Senate Armed Services Committee voted 21-0 after a five-hour hearing to send former CIA Director Robert Gates' nomination to the full Senate. It was expected to confirm him as soon as Wednesday as successor to Donald H. Rumsfeld, a key architect of the increasingly unpopular war.
Gates' non-Rumsfeldian frankness about Iraq was a signal to Congress and the White House that he will be more forthright than Rumsfeld, who frequently dismissed views that differed from his own upbeat assessments.
Moreover, Gates' pledges to consult lawmakers on Iraq strategy changes appeared to be a nod to Democrats, who won control of Congress—and thus the Pentagon budget—in the Nov. 7 election. The Democrats' big showing was widely seen as an expression of voter discontent over the war.
"I am open to a wide range of ideas and proposals," declared Gates, now president of Texas A&M University.
President Bush has insisted that U.S. troops are winning in Iraq.
"I know you want to pit a fight between Bob Gates and the president. It doesn't exist," said White House spokesman Tony Snow when pressed on the apparently conflicting views.
Snow asserted that Gates' full testimony showed that he and Bush agree that the United States must help Iraq become a country that can defend and govern itself.
Some 140,000 American troops and U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces have failed to curb an insurgency by Sunni Muslims or violence by Shiite Muslim militias linked to religious parties in the majority Shiite-dominated government. More than 2,900 U.S. troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis have died since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Gates' hearing came a day before the bipartisan Iraq Study Group headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton was to unveil its recommendations.
Baker briefed Bush on Tuesday on the findings. Gates was a panel member, but quit after Bush nominated him on Nov. 8.
Asked by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the incoming chairman of the armed services committee, if the United States was winning in Iraq, Gates replied, "No sir."
He later said he agreed with Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who recently said, "We are not winning, but we are not losing."
Gates said he was concerned that "troops in the field might have misunderstood something I said" and that his comment pertained "to the situation in Iraq as a whole. Our military forces win the battles that they fight."
He noted that resolving the conflict required an accord on sharing political power and oil revenues among Sunnis, Shiites and other groups.
Gates said that stabilizing Iraq would be his top priority and that he would visit U.S. troops in Iraq soon if confirmed. He said he would solicit the views of military commanders, members of Congress and administration officials before offering his own recommendations.
Leaving Iraq precipitously would be disastrous for the Middle East and U.S. security, he said.
"Our course over the next year or two will determine whether the American and Iraqi people, and the next president of the United States, will face a slowly, but steadily improving situation in Iraq and in the region, or will face the very real risk, and possible reality, of a regional conflagration," he said.
Gates said that Iran and Syria are already supporting sectarian factions, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-dominated Arab nations could intervene to defend Sunnis from Shiite "ethnic cleansing," and Turkey "would not sit idly by" if the ethnic Kurdish minority declared an independent nation in northern Iraq.
The United States also could face challenges elsewhere if other countries conclude "that we don't have the patience and we don't have the will" to stabilize Iraq, he added.
Gates said he believed that Bush "understands there is a need for change in our approach in Iraq, that what we are doing now is not working satisfactorily."
A withdrawal or reduction of U.S. troops, however, would depend on "conditions on the ground," he said.
On other issues, Gates said he believed that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, but that diplomacy should be the "first option" and that a military attack would be "an absolute last resort."
Asked for assurances that he would give unvarnished advice to Bush, Gates replied that he would not be giving up his Texas A&M post and making a "personal financial sacrifice" to be a "bump on a log and not to say exactly what I think."
There were no hard questions about Gates' role as deputy CIA director during the Reagan administration, when secret arms sales to Iran were used to finance weapons for anti-communist Nicaraguan rebels.
Many of the lawmakers who endorsed Gates on Tuesday have complained that Rumsfeld refused to solicit or listen to their views or those of senior military commanders.
"What we heard ... was a welcome breath of honest, candid realism about the situation in Iraq. It's been missing, I'm afraid, up to now from the administration," said Levin, who opposed the invasion and is calling for a gradual U.S. troop pullout to begin within four to six months.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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