Gates urges Iraq foes to seize chance to reconcile
28 July 2009 BAGHDAD - US Defence Secretary Robert Gates met Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Tuesday, on a visit to urge Iraq’s communities to settle political differences before US troops leave by the end of 2011.
Gates, on a previously unannounced mission, was also expected to discuss supplying Iraq with weapons and equipment to help the Baghdad government provide its own security after the departure of US troops.
After arriving at a US base south of Baghdad, Gates and General Ray Odierno, the top US commander in Iraq, met with Maliki in the Iraqi capital and were later to hold talks with the defence and interior ministers.
Gates planned to appeal to Arab and Kurdish officials to take advantage of the window of the US troop presence to resolve disputes over power-sharing, internal boundaries and oil revenues, a senior US defence official said.
Under an agreement with Baghdad, US troops withdrew from Iraqi cities and towns last month and are required to pull out of the country entirely by 2011.
“The feedback I got here is that the agreement has changed the chemistry of the relationship ... in a positive way,” Gates told reporters after flying in to Iraq.
“Nobody’s the boss or the occupier or however you want to put it, but there’s a real sense of empowerment by the Iraqis.”
Earlier, the senior defence official said that among the possible hardware on Baghdad’s wish list were F-16 fighter planes, as Iraq looks to build up a modern air force.
Gates, who visited Israel and Jordan on Monday, also planned to take a first-hand look at how the US military has been preparing to adapt to a new mission focused on advising and supporting Iraqi security forces.
“Less than a month into it, I’m really heartened,” Gates said of the US-Iraq accord, noting that he was encouraged by cooperation between Iraqi forces and US troops after the pullback.
As time winds down on the US military mission, President Barack Obama’s administration has called for stepped up efforts to tackle disputes which threaten to revive ethnic and sectarian strife.
The administration believes “all sides have to take an approach in both words and actions that commits them to a peaceful political process,” the defence official said.
Iraqi Kurds in particular have an interest in forging reconciliation promptly while US forces remain on the ground, the official said.
Washington, with its longstanding ties to the Kurdish former rebel factions that run an autonomous regional government in northern Iraq, could act as an “honest-broker” between the Kurds and the Shiite-led central government, he said.
During his two-day visit Gates was to travel to the Kurdish region after his talks with Maliki.
His trip follows presidential and parliamentary polls in the northern region on Saturday that saw a new reform-minded opposition group hail a breakthrough against the long-dominant main ex-rebel factions, ahead of official results.
The US military is gradually drawing down in Iraq under the security agreement with Baghdad, but carrying out the accord has caused some friction between the remaining 128,000 American troops and Iraqi security forces.
An Iraqi officer ordered the detention of US soldiers this month after they shot dead three Iraqis while pursuing insurgents.
Maliki said during a visit to Washington last week that the detention of the US soldiers was a mistake and that the Iraqi officer was “out of line.”
At a news conference in Jordan on Monday, Gates said the United States remains committed to the security accord and that it is being successfully carried out.
“The United States is abiding by the terms of the agreement that we signed with the Iraqis, and we will continue to abide by that agreement,” he said.