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WASHINGTON — Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told lawmakers Wednesday that he isn’t worried a resolution opposing increased military presence in Iraq will hurt troops’ morale, because servicemembers are “sophisticated” enough to appreciate how democracy works.

“I think the troops understand that everybody involved (in the debate) is trying to do the right thing for our country,” Gates told members of the House Armed Services Committee. “Everybody is looking forward for a way to avoid leaving Iraq in chaos, and I think they understand that.”

The comments came in response to a question from Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., about plans by Democrat representatives and senators to move legislation opposing President Bush’s plans to deploy an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq.

Several Republicans on the committee blasted the plan. Ranking member and presidential candidate Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said some of those troops are already headed to Iraq, and opposing it would send a “fractured message” to both the troops and U.S. allies.

But Gates and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, downplayed the issue, saying that the troops they have spoken with have not been overly concerned with the rhetoric from Washington.

“There is no doubt in my mind [that] dialogue strengthens democracy,” Pace said. “The troops understand that. They just look for support in the missions given to them and the equipment provided to them.”

Both men avoided giving their opinions on the resolutions, but added that they believe lawmakers have the best intentions of the military at heart, regardless their politics.

Pace said insurgents working against the U.S. military “may look to take comfort in that division,” but added that they “don’t have a clue how democracy works.”

Gates echoed that sentiment.

“History is littered with examples of people who mistook a robust debate in Washington with weakness on the part of America,” he said.

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