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Gates says Iraq troop levels may be reduced

But, in a year-end news conference, the defense secretary did not rule out putting more forces in Afghanistan.

WASHINGTON - In a year marked by progress in Iraq, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates yesterday acknowledged two bits of unfinished business in his first 12 months on the job: He has yet to close the Guantanamo Bay prison or find Osama bin Laden.

Gates, in a news conference at the Pentagon, held out hope that if Iraq security gains hold, U.S. troop levels in Iraq can be reduced from the current 158,000 to 100,000 in the next year.

But with a nod to the increased attacks in parts of Afghanistan, he did not rule out a small uptick in U.S. troops there.

Gates acknowledged he still has not found a way to overcome the legal obstacles and shut down the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility where 285 suspected terrorists are being held.

"I think that the principal obstacle has been resolving a lot of the legal issues associated with closing Guantanamo and what you do with the prisoners when they come back," he said. "So, I would say that the honest answer is that because of some of these legal concerns . . . there has not been much progress in this respect."

At the same time, U.S. military forces have not found bin Laden, the man responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"We are continuing the hunt," Gates said, adding that progress will be marked by the day when "the president goes out in front and says that we have either captured or killed him."

Gates acknowledged that the United States is looking at adding a small number of forces in Afghanistan, where it already carries the largest share of the load with about 26,000 troops.

The United States has been pressing allies to increase their commitment there. Gates said that he is still looking for creative ways for them to do that - including meeting commanders' needs for 3,500 more trainers, another 3,000 combat troops, and some helicopters.

Asked if the United States will fill any of those troop requirements, he said the Pentagon "will be looking at the requirements ourselves. And we will be talking with our allies."

A former CIA director, Gates took over the Pentagon last December after the embattled Donald H. Rumsfeld stepped down.

Since then he has seen both victories and defeats.

Overall, however, Iraq dominated his year - with four trips to the war front, an overhaul of his commanders, a shift in strategy, and a battery of hearings and reviews.

"It was a year that began with a surge of troops in Iraq and has ended with a sharp decline in violence," Gates said. "The war is far from over. And we must protect and build on the gains earned with the blood of our military, our allies and our Iraqi partners."

Asked about the possibility of political reforms in Iraq, Gates said the country's leaders "are committed to getting it done. We'll see if they get it done."

The progress in Afghanistan has been mixed, Gates said, noting that violence increased as the coalition forces launched more aggressive attacks against the insurgents. Al-Qaeda also has stepped up its activities.

Gates said he was told yesterday morning that there has been a 40 percent drop in cross-border attacks in eastern Afghanistan over the last six months.

He also signaled a small, if temporary, victory, saying that because Congress recently passed legislation providing $70 billion for combat operations, there will be no layoff notices sent out during the holiday season. That possibility had loomed until Congress passed the spending bill.

Still, he warned that paying for the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan in fits and starts undermines military planning and risks the gains made by American troops.

And noting that the funding is less than half that requested by the president, Gates said the layoffs and cutbacks may resurface in a few months.