Gates urges veto of troop-rest measure

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    WASHINGTON - Senate Democrats are confident they can pass legislation to give troops more rest between Iraq deployments, a measure aimed at pressing the Bush administration to change its war policy.

    Defense Secretary Robert Gates called the proposal by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., a dangerous "backdoor way" to draw down additional forces. Gates said he would recommend a veto.

    "If we get this next phase wrong — no matter how you feel about how we got to where we are, the consequences of getting this wrong for Iraq, for the region, for us are enormous," he said Sunday.

    Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., responded that shorter breaks were creating an undue strain on U.S. troops and their families.

    "They deserve the same amount of time back home as they stay in the field," Reed said.

    The comments represented the latest political clash over the unpopular war. President Bush last week announced plans for a limited drawdown but indicated combat forces would stay in Iraq well past 2008.

    On Monday, Rep. John Murtha, a Vietnam veteran and war critic, said President Bush remains committed to keeping U.S. troops in Iraq for an indefinite period and Americans don't want that.

    "When letters go unanswered, when suggestions go ignored, when the pleas of the public fall on deaf ears, how are the American people expected to continue to support flawed policies and undefined missions?" Murtha, D-Pa., said in remarks prepared for delivery. "Today, we have a clear choice between responsible congressional oversight and this administration's blindness."

    The Senate was scheduled to resume debate this week on anti-war legislation, including Webb's proposal to require that troops have as much time at their home station as they do deployed to Iraq.

    Gates was asked in broadcast interviews about recommending a Bush veto 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 measure say it has at least 57 of the 60 votes needed. It would need 67 votes to override a veto.

    A separate proposal by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., seeks to restrict troops' mission to fighting terrorists 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. Military commanders would be constrained in the use of available forces, creating gaps and forcing greater use of the National Guard and Reserve, he said.

    "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."

    "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 currently 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.

    Bush said last week that he 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 recommendations in March.

    There are about 169,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

    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.

    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 whether the security situation in Iraq had improved dramatically.

    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 decades.

    Gates spoke on "Fox News Sunday" and "This Week" on ABC. Reed was on ABC and Levin appeared on "Face the Nation" on CBS.

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