Gates, who is traveling to Australia for defense and diplomatic meetings, told reporters traveling with him that he thinks a "brief pause" to evaluate the security situation in Iraq "is probably necessary in order to be able to assess the pacing of any subsequent drawdowns."
While Gates still would not say how long a brief interruption in troop cuts might be, his comments signaled that reductions could begin again before the end of the year.
"I think my hope still is that we will be able to further draw down our troops in Iraq over the course of the next 10 to 12 months," he said.
The defense secretary's comments came as he prepared for talks with new Australian government leaders who campaigned on a vow to pull roughly 550 of their combat troops out of Iraq.
Gates offered no criticism of the Australians for their decision. Instead, he said that while the coalition values the role the Australians have played, he realizes that about half of their army is deployed, which puts stress on the military.
"We're concerned about the stress on our own forces, the Australians are confronting that challenge themselves," he said. The U.S. has about 156,000 troops in Iraq.
After a 30,000-troop buildup ordered by President Bush last year to quell violence in Baghdad, the Pentagon
-- under pressure from Congress and a war-weary public -- has begun a plan to pull five combat brigades out of Iraq by July, without replacing them. One brigade left in December and was not replaced.
Australia's new center-left government -- headed by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd
-- appears to be looking toward a shift in its focus in Iraq, from combat to a broader role in training Iraqi forces, advising civilian agencies and providing more financial aid to the country.
Rudd, whose party gained control last November after 11 years as the opposition, campaigned on a pledge to withdraw the combat troops from Iraq by mid-2008.
Gates and Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte were flying to Canberra on Friday, and are scheduled to meet with Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon. And they are scheduled to attend a dinner hosted by Rudd.
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This is the 19th bilateral defense and diplomatic meeting between officials from the United States and Australia.
Gates said a variety of issues will be covered, including the war in Afghanistan, where Australia has about 1,000 troops, with many working as trainers or in noncombat roles.
The two countries have largely been on the same page on Afghanistan, where the U.S. carries a large share of the combat burden. Australian leaders have echoed Gates repeated calls for other NATO nations to meet their commitments and provide needed troops there.
Asked whether he's concerned that Rudd and the new government may look to reduce troops there, Gates said no.
"I've had two meetings with their defense minister at this point, and I don't have any sense of a change in direction in Afghanistan," he said.
U.S. defense officials also said they expect Australia -- which is not a member of NATO
-- to press for a greater role in the decision-making regarding the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.
The U.S. has 29,000 troops in Afghanistan, including 16,000 serving with the NATO-led coalition, and another 13,000 training the Afghan forces and hunting al-Qaida terrorists.
Gates is also expected to give the Australians an idea where the U.S. is heading in Iraq, and his assessment of progress there.
On the Net:
Defense Department: http://www.defenselink.mil/
Press; By LOLITA C. BALDOR]
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