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The Marine Corps is floating a proposal to remove its forces from western Iraq and take over the U.S. military combat mission in Afghanistan, according to published reports and military officials.

The proposal, which was reportedly suggested by the Marine commandant and discussed at the Pentagon last week, would coincide with a gradual U.S. withdrawal of forces from Iraq and leave the Army to complete the Iraq mission.

During a joint news conference Thursday with British military leaders in London, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called any such plan “extremely preliminary.”

“I have heard that they were beginning to think about that, and that’s all that I’ve heard,” Gates said, according to a transcript of the session. “I’ve seen no plan, no one’s come to me with any proposals about it.”

“My understanding is that it’s — at this point — extremely preliminary thinking on the part of perhaps some staff people in the Marine Corps, but I don’t think at this point it has any stature,” Gates was quoted as saying.

On Thursday, the Marine Corps spokesman at the Pentagon declined specific comment on the reports.

“Discussions of a possible role for Marine forces in Afghanistan are in their early stages and it would be inappropriate to comment further on them,” Col. David Lapan said in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes.

“The Marine Corps is fully committed to fulfilling its mandate as the nation’s force in readiness — we will be where our country needs us, when she needs us, and we will prevail over whatever challenges we face.”

About 25,000 Marines operate in Anbar province, once Iraq’s most volatile region. In recent months, violence there has dropped remarkably, as Sunni tribes shifted their allegiance to U.S. forces. But Army units have long played a key role in Anbar, with Army brigades having responsibility for the Ramadi region over the past several years.

In September, Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq, announced the withdrawal of 2,200 Marines from Anbar as the first portion of a drawdown of some 21,000 U.S. “surge” troops scheduled to leave Iraq by July 2008.

According to the New York Times, the plan to shift the Marines from Iraq to Afghanistan was discussed “in a session last week convened by [Gates] for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and regional war-fighting commanders.

“While still under review, its supporters, including some in the Army, argue that a realignment could allow the Army and Marines each to operate more efficiently in sustaining troop levels for two wars that have put a strain on their forces,” the Times reported.

The Times reported that any such proposal would “face resistance from the Air Force, whose current role in providing combat aircraft for Afghanistan could be squeezed if the overall mission was handed to the Marines. Unlike the Army, the Marines would bring a significant force of combat aircraft to that conflict.”

The proposal could also indicate tensions over how the services would compete for defense funding at a time when Congress appears hesitant to continue large defense spending increases, particularly for the war in Iraq.

Supporters of the plan believe “it would allow the Marines to carry out the Afghan mission in a way the Army cannot, by deploying an integrated Marine Corps task force that included combat aircraft as well as infantry and armored vehicles, while the Army must rely on the Air Force,” the Times story read.

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