With public opinion polls showing a majority of Americans supporting a timeline for withdrawing troops from Iraq, members of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee asked Secretary Gates when US soldiers could begin coming home.
Gates said the answer will depend on an assessment from the US military commander in Iraq in September about progress toward reducing violence and achieving political reconciliation.
"I think we will be looking for the direction of events. We do not have to have it all locked in place and everything already completed. I think if we see some very positive progress and it looks like things are headed in the right direction, then that is the point at which I think we can begin to consider reducing some of these forces."
But Gates warned of dire consequences if US troops were to pull out of Iraq before the country is stabilized.
"If we were to withdraw with Iraq in chaos, al-Qaida will almost certainly use Anbar province as another base from which to plan operations not only inside Iraq, but first of all in the neighborhood, and then potentially against the United States."
As Gates' testified, members of the Democratic-led House of Representatives were crafting legislation to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through July, when Congress would have the option of cutting off money if conditions do not improve.
President Bush, who has requested more than 90 billion dollars to fund the military missions through September, has signaled he will veto the two-month appropriation if it is passed by both houses of Congress.
Defense Secretary Gates also expressed his concern about the proposal.
"The proposal also assumes financial and cash flow controls and precision in those controls day-to-day that would require a degree of agility that is not normally associated with the Department of Defense."
President Bush vetoed an earlier bill. Although the bill contained the money he sought for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he vetoed it because it included a timeline for US troops to begin withdrawing from Iraq later this year.