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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 July 2007, 18:43 GMT 19:43 UK
Gates shows hurt over war deaths
By James Coomarasamy
BBC News, Washington

Robert Gates (file image from 29/06/2007)
Robert Gates's speech showed an unusual degree of emotion
The US defence secretary has revealed some of the pressure that the war in Iraq has been having on officials in the White House.

Robert Gates almost broke down as he gave a speech at a Marine Corps dinner.

The moment came as he described writing notes to the families of soldiers who had died in the conflict, calling them "our country's sons and daughters".

It was an unusual display of emotion from a senior official within the administration of George W Bush.

Referring to Major Doug Zembiec, a marine decorated for his bravery in Falluja in 2004 who was recently killed in action after he had asked to return to Iraq, Mr Gates's voice cracked with emotion.

"Every evening, I write notes to the families of young Americans like Doug Zembiec," he said.

"For you and for me, they're not names on a press release or numbers updated on a website. They are our country's sons and daughters."

Condolence letter row

Over the course of the Iraq war, the Bush administration has several times faced accusations that its high-level officials are too distant from the concerns of soldiers on the ground.

Donald Rumsfeld (file image)
Mr Rumsfeld was criticised for not signing condolence letters himself

Mr Gates's show of feeling suggests that he brings a more human side to the role of defence secretary.

His predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, came under fire in 2004 for failing personally to sign letters of condolence to the families of more than 1,000 troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He argued that he had used a machine to sign them - "in the interest of ensuring expeditious contact with grieving family members" - but was forced to promise that he would in future sign them himself.

Mr Rumsfeld, who resigned last November after concern about Iraq contributed to bruising Republican losses in mid-term elections, was also accused of sending troops into the field with inadequate equipment.

President Bush faced criticism in 2004 for not having attended the funerals of any of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

'Too defensive'

Earlier this year, a scandal over sub-standard conditions at the Walter Reed Medical Center, where US veterans are treated, led to the resignation of the US army secretary and two generals.

Reports said some patients were living in rat- and cockroach-infested buildings and that bureaucracy was getting in the way of treatment.

Mr Gates himself accused senior army officials of showing "too much defensiveness" and not enough commitment to addressing the problems at the hospital.

He added that he was "concerned that some do not properly understand the need to communicate to the wounded and their families that we have no higher priority than their care".

Critics said Mr Bush was too slow to visit the centre and that when he did, he treated the occasion as a photo opportunity.

Mr Gates's speech to the Marine Corps Association dinner came just after the Democrat-controlled Congress had failed in its latest attempt to force the administration to begin withdrawing US troops from Iraq.

But, even if the immediate congressional pressure has eased, there are clearly other pressures weighing on the White House as it ponders its current troop surge strategy and awaits September's much-anticipated report from the top US commander on the ground, General David Petraeus.

Robert Gates speaks at Marine Corps dinner.

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