WASHINGTON - President Bush has mobilized his administration, including his top general in Iraq, in a major push to win more time and money for his war strategy. But one crucial voice has been missing from the chorus: U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.


In fact, Gates' recent comments seem to run counter to the message from the White House. During a recent trip to the Middle East, Gates told the Iraqi government time was running out and praised Democratic efforts in the U.S. Congress to set a timetable, saying it would help prod the Iraqis.


A spokesman for Gates insisted there is no distance between the defense secretary's thinking on the timetable for Iraq and views held by the White House or Army Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. troops in Iraq.


But his warnings to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki are just the latest indications from Gates that he believes the window of opportunity for the administration to get Iraq right is closing sooner rather than later.


Any determination by Gates that time is running out on the current plan could severely complicate the administration's strategy this summer, a prospect that has begun to worry some backers of the troop "surge."



"I believe Gates is on a completely different page than President Bush and General Petraeus," said a former senior defense official who has supported the buildup. "He wants to see some results by summer, and if he doesn't see those results, he seems willing to throw the towel in.


Gates was a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, the blue-ribbon commission that recommended combat troop withdrawals in its report last year. Gates did not sign the report; he has said formal deliberations did not start until after he left for the Pentagon. But several people who worked on the report said Gates was closely involved in early drafts and would have supported its eventual conclusions.


"There remains no question in my mind that Bob Gates, had he not become secretary of defense, would have supported those recommendations," said Leon Panetta, a former White House chief of staff and a member of the Iraq panel.


Gates came to the Pentagon last year vowing unvarnished assessments of progress in Iraq and established a reputation on Capitol Hill for speaking frankly. As a result, he has become a rare trusted administration voice on Iraq policy, unencumbered by the baggage of the war's initial planning and execution.


But since taking over from the divisive Donald Rumsfeld in December, Gates largely has kept his views on the surge to himself. At Bush's direction, Gates spent his first weeks at the Pentagon gathering information to recommend a new course. But administration officials have since acknowledged that the new course already had been set, and Gates became its chief manager.


In that role, he has refrained from praising the strategy and is exploring backup plans in case it fails. He hopes to begin troop reductions this year and has ordered planners to keep funding for the buildup out of next year's budget, an indication he wants the increase to end in 2007. And while he sides with the administration against hard deadlines, he parts ways with the buildup's top backers by recognizing value in the debate over timetables.


Gates has insisted for much of the year that the current Baghdad security plan be evaluated this summer - barely two months after the surge forces are in place.

"I was a little disturbed, frankly, to hear that one of our military officers - and I don't know who it was - saying it will be fall before we have some good idea," Gates said at a congressional hearing, unprompted by any question about timing.


Gates eventually gave way after Bush himself announced that he would give Petraeus until September. Nonetheless, Gates' views worry military officials who support the troop increase. One senior military officer argued that rather than talking about time running out, Gates and the Pentagon ought to be trying to buy more time for the new strategy.

"If we cannot practice a little ... patience right now," said the officer, "we might as well pull out."

Added a military analyst who has consulted for the Pentagon: "(Gates) seems to be off message and I do not know why. I don't know if Gates thinks the war can be won. He has said it can, but I am not 100 percent sold that he believes it, and that is a real problem."


Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said Gates has been clear that he believes true reconciliation and progress in Iraq will take time.

"General Petraeus and Secretary Gates are of like minds on this matter," Whitman said. "To suggest that somehow he has a different view ... on the strategy is wrong, it's uninformed and it's mischievous to suggest so."


Some currently serving defense officials privately have questioned the pressure Gates has exerted on the Iraqis.

"The Iraqis know this is not an open-ended deal, but to shove it in their face is not helping," said a military officer. "They can only move so fast."