US President George W. Bush's nominee to be secretary of defense said on Tuesday that the US is not winning the war in Iraq, and that failure there could help ignite "a regional conflagration" in the Middle East.
Robert Gates, who will succeed Donald Rumsfeld as Pentagon chief if he is confirmed as expected, told senators that the US went to war in Iraq without enough troops, as some generals said at the outset of the conflict.
The statements about the situation in Iraq came during an exchange with Republican Senator John McCain during Gates' confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"We are not winning the war in Iraq, is that correct?" McCain asked.
"That is my view, yes, senator," Gates replied, adding shortly afterward that the US is not losing the war either.
"There clearly were insufficient troops in Iraq after the initial invasion," Gates said. While he said that he envisions "a dramatically smaller" number of US troops there, he said a US presence would be required "for a long time."
Developments in Iraq "in the next year or two" will shape the future of the entire Middle East, Gates said in describing the possibility of a "regional conflagration" arising out of the Iraq bloodshed.
Gates told the senators at the outset that he is "open to a wide range of ideas and proposals" about what to do in Iraq, and that the US's overall goal should still be an Iraq that can "sustain itself, defend itself and govern itself," the objective that Bush has long set out.
But Gates said he believes the president "wants me to take a fresh look, and all options are on the table." Indeed, as a member of the Iraq Study Group until he was nominated to succeed Rumsfeld, Gates had already been taking part in a sweeping review of the situation in Iraq.
Gates has been president of Texas A&M University and told the senators that he is not giving up that job, which he loves, to be anyone's sycophant in Washington.
"I don't owe anybody anything," he said, vowing to give not only the president but Congress his unvarnished advice.
McCain has been among the few lawmakers who have been calling for more US troops in Iraq.
Consequently, Gates' comments about reducing US troop strength there while still working to forestall a regional catastrophe seemed likely to be a big part of the confirmation hearing, which was likely to end on Tuesday afternoon.
During the hearing, Gates also said that the US should attack Iran only as a last resort and that he would not support military action against Syria.
"I think that military action against Iran would be an absolute last resort," Gates said.
The US should first use diplomacy and work with allies to deal with problems it says Iran poses, Gates said.
Asked if he thought the US should attack Syria, Gates said, "No, sir, I do not."
"A military attack ... on Syria would have dramatic consequences across the Middle East," he added.
Gates, a former director of the CIA, seems assured of confirmation. Even Representative Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who opposed his confirmation as CIA head 15 years ago, promised "a fresh and fair look" at Gates' record since then.
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