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Gates Asks Congress Not To Derail Iraq Progress

By Jim Garamone

Gates Asks Congress Not to Derail Iraq Progress

Important progress the military is making in the war on terror would be derailed if Congress doesn't pass a supplemental war spending bill "in short order," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told the Killeen, Texas, Chamber of Commerce yesterday.

Congress has passed supplemental measures, but each includes timetables for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. President Bush has vowed to veto any spending bill that contains this language.

Killeen is the site of Fort Hood, home of the Army's 3rd Corps, 4th Infantry Division, and 1st Cavalry Division. At least one major unit from Fort Hood has been deployed to Iraq since March 2003.

Gates said the facts of the problem are simple. "Without these funds, Army operations and maintenance funds will be exhausted by mid-February, and similar Marine Corps funds about a month later," he said. "We cannot wait until mid-February to figure out how to deal with the consequences of these accounts running dry."

If Congress does not pass a bill the president will sign, the department will have to take measures, starting in mid-December, the secretary said to the group. DoD will need to send furlough notifications out to Army civilian employees beginning next month. The service also will have to terminate contracts and reduce base services and operations.

"We're not trying to scare anyone or play politics; that's not the way I do business," Gates said. "But I am responsible for prudent management and planning, and that means prior planning just in case we don't get this funding in a bill the president will sign."

The secretary likened DoD to the world's biggest supertanker: It cannot turn on a dime, and we cannot steer it like a skiff. "I do not want to cause anxiety among our employees, but I must plan and I must prepare," he said.

In the question-and-answer session that followed the speech, Gates said the surge of additional forces into Iraq has worked. "I think that the decision to increase by a substantial number the combat forces in Iraq has taken what was a pretty dismal prospect a year ago and turned it into a pretty promising aspect right now. The security situation is significantly improved," he said.

While the security situation is better, servicemembers still are being killed and wounded in Iraq. "I have two folders of condolence letters in my hotel room to sign tonight," he said. "It's the worst part of my job. So no matter how successful we are in terms of the military strategy, there are still families that are hurting, and we need to be cognizant of that and take care not only of the servicemember but the families of those wounded or killed."

The surge has made a huge difference, Gates said, and positive and promising political and economic developments on the ground that the United States did not anticipate are taking place. The secretary said he does not want to count the chickens too early. "But I think the signs are all positive right now," he added.

Gates noted that Army Gen. David H. Petraeus told Congress in September that he wanted to bring five brigades home by July 2008. Since Petraeus, the commander of Multinational Force Iraq, made that announcement, "things have only gotten better," Gates said.

"My hope is that we will not only be able to meet that timetable, but that we will be able to continue the drawdowns after July," he said.

The security progress in Iraq has allowed a Fort Hood unit -- 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division -- to redeploy. "The members of that brigade and of every other unit throughout the U.S. armed forces have been giving this effort everything they've got," Gates said. "And they've gained something in return: They know that they are defending our country and shaping the course of history."

Gates said Fort Hood units have been under stress. The units deploy for 15 months and are at home station for a year. "Let me point out that more help is on the way," Gates told the crowd.

The Army is recruiting more soldiers to build more units, and money is programmed to help improve the quality of life for families when their loved ones are deployed.

Gates also praised families of deployed soldiers. "America owes a great deal to those who have been called 'the power behind the power' -- the spouses, children, parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters of our men and women in uniform," he said. "They, too, make a significant contribution and pay a price in the cause of protecting the United States and its allies."

Gates recalled his days the president of Texas A&M University before becoming defense secretary. "When I was at A&M, I would get e-mails from Aggies serving in Iraq," he said during the question-and-answer session. "They all said three things: 'We want to come home, we don't want to come home until the job is done, and we don't want the sacrifices of our buddies to be in vain.'

"I think that's the way most people feel at this point, and the truth is I think we're on a track where with any luck we can meet all three of those conditions," Gates said.


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