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WASHINGTON — Plans to draw down the number of U.S. troops in Iraq over the next nine months won’t prompt an immediate change in the 15-month tours soldiers serve now, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday.

Gates added that by next summer some units could be brought back before a full 15 months deployed — “maybe after 14 months, maybe less” — depending on conditions on the ground in Iraq. He raised the possibility of going beyond President Bush’s current troop-cut plan, reducing the number of U.S. forces to about 100,000 by the end of 2008.

On Thursday, Bush announced plans not to replace about 5,700 troops due to return to the U.S. by the end of the year and to draw down up to 30,000 troops by July.

Gates and Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said top defense officials were unanimous in supporting the plan, which they called the best way to both preserve security gains and hand over more responsibility to Iraqi forces.

Pentagon and White House officials said they would not project any troop cuts past July, opting to wait and evaluate conditions in Iraq. But Gates said Friday he hopes that, if successful over the next nine months, troop withdrawals could continue through the end of 2008, bringing the total force there to around 100,000.

Despite the lower number of troops expected in Iraq, Gates said he opposes several proposals in Congress to return Army units to 12-month tours overseas, saying the demands on the force still require the longer deployments.

“We would have to look at increasing the use of in-lieu-of troops being deployed. We’d have to look at significantly increasing the deployment of Guard and Reserve units,” he said. “I also think that would degrade combat readiness … which could result in less-effective units being deployed.”

Pace said the decision was “informed by resource availability, not dictated by it.”

The longer rotations and multiple deployments for units did not force military leaders to start drawing down Iraq numbers, but the strain on the force was considered by Pentagon planners.

Gates said a return to 12-month combat tours could also force planners to cut into units’ time home for rest and retraining, one of the main reasons why officials put the 15-month tours in place.

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