Robert Gates, President George W Bush's choice to take over the Pentagon, said on Tuesday that America was not winning in Iraq and warned that the Middle East could explode into violence.
The Senate Armed Services Committee recommended unanimously that Gates be confirmed as successor to Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld after just a day of questioning the former CIA director, who said all options for stabilizing Iraq were on the table.
Asked by Democratic Sen Carl Levin of Michigan if the United States was winning in Iraq, Gates replied: "No, sir."
Gates' answer contradicted a declaration by Bush on October 25 that "absolutely, we're winning" in Iraq.
White House spokesman Tony Snow insisted Gates shared Bush's goals in Iraq but had been brought in to take a fresh look at policy.
Gates gave few clues on how he thought US fortunes in Iraq could be improved, saying he wanted to consult first with military commanders and others.
But he showed an interest in more training of Iraqi forces -- an option already being pursued by US commanders.
"If our focus is on training and bringing up the Iraqi army, do we have enough trainers to do that job in Iraq? And should we be embedding more of our troops with the Iraqis?" he asked.
In the more than three years since US-led forces invaded Iraq, the conflict has claimed the lives more than 2,900 American troops and at least tens of thousands of Iraqis.
"Our course over the next year or two will determine whether the American and Iraqi people and the next president of the United States will face a slowly and steadily improving situation in Iraq and in the region or will face the very real risk of a regional conflagration," Gates told the hearing.
Gates' nomination now goes to the full Senate, where he is also expected to win easy approval as early as on Wednesday. The White House urged the Senate to move swiftly.
Gates said his impression that America was not winning in Iraq was based largely on his work in the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel that is to make recommendations to Bush on Wednesday. Gates served on the panel until he was nominated.
Gates said he believed the United States was not losing the war either "at this point."
Concerned about the impact of his words on troops in Iraq, he later stressed his comments on winning and losing related to overall efforts to stabilise Iraq, not to military combat.
"Our military forces win the battles that they fight," he said.
Bush nominated Gates to replace Rumsfeld -- an architect of the unpopular war -- after the president's Republican Party lost control of both houses of Congress in elections last month, driven largely by voter anger over Iraq.
Many Democrats want a phased withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, to begin in four to six months, and say their victory in last month's election gives that option a popular mandate.