Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Monday he backed a brief pause in U.S. troop reductions from Iraq once an initial pullout of five combat brigades has been completed in July.
Troop levels in Iraq are a big U.S. political issue, particularly in a presidential election year. Both leading Democrats want a swift withdrawal, while Republicans have said U.S. commanders should decide when it is safe to pull out.
I think that the notion of a brief period of consolidation and evaluation probably does make sense, Gates told reporters in Baghdad, endorsing publicly for the first time an idea mooted by the U.S. military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus.
Asked how long this period of evaluation would last, Gates said: That's one of the things we are still thinking about.
Last year President George W. Bush ordered 30,000 extra troops to Iraq to curb rampant sectarian violence between the Shi'ite Muslim majority and Sunni Arabs that had taken the country to the brink of civil war.
But U.S. force levels have begun to drop because of improvements in security and as more Iraqi forces are deployed. The number of U.S. troops in Iraq will be 130,000 by July, the same as before additional deployments began in early 2007.
Petraeus said in a CNN interview late last month he would need some time to let things settle a bit after the initial reduction, prompting speculation he wanted to keep about 130,000 troops or more in Iraq well into the second half of the year.
Asked if Petraeus had explained his thinking, Gates said:
In my own thinking, I had been kind of headed in that direction as well. But one of the keys is ... how long is that period? And what happens after that.
Troop levels are also a challenge for U.S. military chiefs, who have seen their forces severely strained by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Any drawdown in Iraq could reduce that strain.
AL QAEDA ROUTED
Violence has fallen across Iraq with attacks down 60 percent since last June when the reinforcements became fully deployed.
Commenting on the improved security, Gates said al Qaeda had been routed in Iraq, without elaborating further, but warned that despite sharp drops in violence the situation in the country remained fragile.
U.S. military commanders have said while Sunni Islamist al Qaeda was badly weakened, it remained a potent threat. The military still calls al Qaeda the greatest threat to Iraq's security and blames it for most major bombings.
On Sunday, militants killed more than 50 people in a spate of attacks mainly in Iraq's north, where al Qaeda militants regrouped after being driven out of former strongholds in western Anbar province and from around Baghdad.
Shortly before Gates left Baghdad, two car bombs exploded in the city killing at least five people, Iraqi police said.
Earlier Gates praised troops for bringing about a pretty remarkable change in Iraq.
What a difference you made -- al Qaeda routed, insurgents co-opted. Levels of violence of all kinds dramatically reduced, Gates said in a brief speech in Baghdad.
The situation in Iraq continues to remain fragile but the Iraqi people now have an opportunity to forge a better, more secure and more prosperous future, said Gates.
U.S. military officials were not available to elaborate on Gates's comment about al Qaeda, which has been at the forefront of opposition to the American presence and the Shi'ite-led government in Iraq.
Many of Sunni Arab insurgents, once-dominant under Saddam Hussein and from whose ranks insurgents drew support, have since switched sides, joining U.S.-backed neighborhood security units to fight al Qaeda and patrol their own districts.
Hours before Gates flew into Baghdad, a suicide car bomb killed 33 people near the northern town of Balad in an attack on a checkpoint manned by local Sunni Arab security volunteers.
At least 19 other people were killed in bombings and shootings on Sunday, one of Iraq's bloodiest days in months.
(Writing by Dean Yates; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)