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New US Defense Secretary Visits Iraq


The new U.S. defense secretary, Robert Gates, has made good on his promise to make the Iraq war his top priority, arriving in the country to assess the situation on the ground just two days after being sworn in as the new military chief. VOA's Margaret Besheer has more from Baghdad.

Secretary Gates told reporters traveling with him that he is in Iraq on a listening mission to hear from commanders and Iraqis and to see what he can learn.

The secretary's visit comes as the Bush administration is looking for a new way forward in Iraq. President Bush has said he is considering many options and will not announce any change in strategy until after the new year. One of those possibilities would be sending an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Iraq to help secure Baghdad and other areas rife with sectarian violence.

Regarding his meeting with top U.S. generals, Secretary Gates told reporters that they discussed the possibility of a surge in troops and the potential for what it might accomplish.

"The question is what is the mission? What is the purpose? Can we do this? How big should an increase be," he said.

The top U.S. commander in Iraq, General George Casey, said he has consistently asked for the number of troops he thinks is necessary, including temporary troop increases such as during Iraqi elections.

"I am not necessarily opposed to the idea but what I want to see happen is if we do bring more American troops here, they help us progress toward our strategic objectives," he said. "That is what I'll be interested in."

At a news conference in Washington Wednesday, President Bush said he has not decided yet whether to increase U.S. troops in Iraq.

"Let me wait and gather all the recommendations from Bob Gates, from our military, from diplomats on the ground, the Iraqi point of view. And then I will get back to you as to whether or not I support a surge or not," said Mr. Bush.

The American and Iraqi publics are eager to see an improvement in Iraq's security situation, as levels of violence have been rising and record high numbers of Iraqis and U.S. forces are being killed.

In the latest sectarian attacks, two car bombs exploded in Baghdad Wednesday, killing several people. One detonated early in the morning at a police checkpoint leading to Baghdad University. Students and police officers were among the dead and wounded.

A second car bomb explosion killed and injured several people in the north of the city.

Though violence continues in the capital, other parts of the country appear stable.

In the southern province of Najaf, U.S. forces transferred control to Iraqi security forces at a ceremony on Wednesday. It is the third of Iraq's 18 provinces to come under Iraqi control, but the first one the Americans are handing over. The other two provinces had been under British and Italian control.

U.S. commander Brigadier General Vincent Brooks said the Najaf handover is an historic event for Iraq.

"I am proud that the Iraqi police and the Iraqi Army now assume overall responsibility for all law enforcement and security activities in the al-Najaf province," he said. "This is a terrific success for Iraq, achieved through the policies of the Iraqi government."

Iraqi national security adviser Mouaffac al-Rubaie said that in a few days security in the three northern provinces of the Kurdistan Region, Dohuk, Irbil and Sulimaniyah, would also be transferred to Iraqi forces.

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