Defense Secretary Robert Gates said for the first time Monday that he supported a pause in American troop reductions in Iraq. It was the most authoritative indication to date that the United States will maintain a large force here through 2008 and into the next presidential term.
Meeting with top commanders in Baghdad, Gates said that after the departure this summer of the five extra combat brigades sent last year in a "surge" to pacify the Baghdad area, the American command should assess whether further troop reductions would hurt security.
In practical terms, his assertion makes it likely that American troop levels in Iraq will not drop much below 130,000 this year - and certainly not to the 100,000 level advocated by some military officials and analysts worried about the protracted strain on the Army from long deployments in the nearly 5-year-old Iraq war.
"I think that the notion of a brief period of consolidation and evaluation probably does make sense," Gates told reporters in Baghdad.
While Gen. David Petraeus, the senior commander in Iraq, had hinted that he would recommend a freezing of troop levels, the endorsement by Gates suggested such a freeze was far more certain. President Bush has said he would place great emphasis on Petraeus' recommendations.
Gates stressed that the president still had made no decisions, and that Bush would receive separate assessments from Petraeus, from commanders responsible for the broader Middle East and from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who would evaluate the strain on the force and global threats.
Officials worried about stress on the ground forces had expressed hopes that American troop levels in Iraq could begin dropping toward 100,000 this year.
VIOLENCE IN BAGHDAD RISES THIS MONTH
Violence is increasing in Iraq, raising questions about whether the security improvements credited to the increase in U.S. troops may be short-lived.
Car bombs in Baghdad on Monday killed at least 22 people and injured a prominent leader of one of the country's most influential American-allied tribal militias.
The Ministry of Electricity announced that power to much of the nation, already anemic, is likely to lag in coming days because insurgents had blown up transmission facilities and natural gas pipelines that fuel generators.
CBS News confirmed that two of its journalists are missing in Basra, in Iraq's south.
After months of declining violence, February is certain to be the third straight month to see increases in the numbers of Baghdad residents killed in car bombings and suicide attacks. According to statistics kept by McClatchy Newspapers, the low point in such killings came in November, when 76 people died. February's tally already is at least 131.