The United States should not withdraw troops from Iraq even if its plan to send in 20,000 extra forces to stabilize the country fails, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday.
In a second day of grilling before a skeptical US Congress, Gates acknowledged the new plan unveiled by President George W. Bush on Wednesday sets no timetable for disarming Shiite and Sunni militias behind the mounting sectarian violence.
"If we talk about the consequences of the American failure and defeat in Iraq, then saying, 'If you don't do this, we'll leave, and we'll leave now,' does not strike me as being in the national interests of the United States," he said.
"So the question will be: What different kind of strategy might we be able to come up with that would have some prospect of avoiding a failure or a defeat in Iraq?"
Democrats, who now control Congress, have called for a withdrawal of US forces from Iraq in four to six months time -- a proposal Gates rejected as little more than an invitation to the insurgents to wait it out.
"I think it is highly likely that there would be a significant increase in sectarian violence in Iraq, that the government would probably begin to come apart, that the army might come apart, and that you would probably have outside elements," he said.
But Gates faced persistent, skeptical questioning from both sides of the Senate Armed Services Committee over whether Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki is committed to the new strategy, which is deeply unpoular in the US.
The secretary acknowledged that the Shiite prime minister's record "is not an encouraging one," but he said the United States will learn within two months whether he is serious this time.
Key commitments the Americans will be watching is whether the government stops interfering in military operations and whether it sends three more Iraqi brigades to Baghdad, including two Kurdish units from northern Iraq.
But asked whether there was a timetable to disarm the Iraqi militias, Gates said: "Not that I know of."
A senior US military official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said Thursday the Iraqis have lifted restrictions on deliberate targeting of certain protected extremists leaders.
They also dropped restrictions on military operations in certain areas of the city such as Sadr City, the stronghold of radical cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr and his Jaish Al-Mahdi (JAM) militia.
But the official said US forces were unlikely to go head to head against militias, unless attacked. "There is not a military solution for the JAM," he said.
Both Gates and General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the success of the new plan would depend on Maliki.
"It's very difficult to see how this plan could succeed if they fail to deliver their commitments," Gates said at one point.
Asked about reports that the Maliki government had given only grudging endorsement to the plan, Gates said the prime minister had wanted the Baghdad operation to be conducted purely with Iraqi forces, without US troops.
After the Iraqis presented their plan, General George Casey worked out a plan with his Iraqi counterparts that involved committing the additional US troops.
"And so to the degree that the Iraqi government is grudging in this, I think it is perhaps -- and I'm speculating, frankly -- that they had hoped to do it themselves," he said.
The Iraqis, he added, "probably grudgingly came to the conclusion that they couldn't do it themselves based on the advice of their own security and military leaders and that developed in the course of filling in the gaps in the plan with our military planners."
Asked whether the Iraqis were now 100 percent behind the plan, Pace said: "Sir, I believe the Iraqi leadership is saying they're 100 percent onboard."
"I believe that the benchmarks in this that they should have attained by now on the military side have each been attained," he said.
"But the success of this operation is going to be based on their delivering on what they have said they will deliver."