Gates: Not clear how long Iraq build-up will last

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates today said it remains unclear how long the “temporary” US military build up ordered by President George Bush in Iraq will last.

But he said that the United States should know pretty soon whether Iraqis were living up to their part of the deal and increasing their own forces.

Gates spoke as the Bush administration worked to persuade a sceptical Democratic-led Congress to accept Bush’s troop build-up as the last best chance for reversing Iraq’s slide.

“All Americans know that the stakes in Iraq are enormous and we all know that the situation is currently unacceptable,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a White House briefing.

Bush’s new strategy, announced Wednesday in a prime-time address to the nation, increases US forces in Iraq by 21,500 and demands greater cooperation from the Iraqi government.

Asked how long that build-up might last, Gates told the briefing: “It’s viewed as a temporary surge, but I think that no one has a really clear idea of what that might be.”

Democrats voiced deep scepticism over the build-up.

“We’re not going to baby sit a civil war,” Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, told NBC’s Today Show.

He said the Democratic-controlled Congress would not undercut troops already in Iraq but would explore ways to restrict the president from expanding the mission.

Democratic Sen Dick Durbin told CBS’ The Early Show that since the new Democratic-led Congress convened last week, “questions are now being asked of this administration that haven’t been asked for almost four years".

Democratic options were limited, however. Party leaders have mulled a resolution of disapproval, but that would be nonbinding, and there also has been talk of attaching a host of conditions to approval of a spending bill to cover the costs of the build-up.

Gates told reporters that he is recommending an overall increase in the military of 92,000 soldiers and Marines over the next five years, bringing the overall total to 202,000 in Marines and 540,000 in the Army worldwide. Bush said last month that he would propose extra troops for the armed forces, which have been strained by the protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Gates also said that to ease the strain on US forces in Iraq, he would have to cycle some reserve units back to the war zone faster than current Pentagon policy, which is to mobilise those units for a year after at least five years of being inactive.

Gates said today’s “global demands” made that change necessary, but said it would “allow us to move closer to removing the stress on the total force".

Asked if the new US and Iraqi offensive would go after Muqtada al-Sadr, the anti-US radical Shiite cleric, Gates said: “All lawbreakers are susceptible to being detained or taken care of in this campaign".

Sadr is a key ally of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

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