U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad Tuesday, amid concerns about ongoing violence and internal quarrels between the central government and Kurdish leaders in the north. The planned U.S. pullout by the end of 2011 and Iraq's desire to buy U.S. weapons were also on the agenda.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates' has now visited Iraq 10 times since he took office in 2006, and this is his second since the June 30 U.S. pullout from Iraqi towns and cities. It comes at a pivotal point in U.S.-Iraqi relations, as both sides attempt to form a new working relationship.
His first stop in Iraq, at Talil Air Base, south of Baghdad, underscores the new focus of U.S. troops in advising and training Iraqi security forces.
The expanding U.S. advisory role coincides with a decrease in combat operations in the months before U.S. troops are due to withdraw by the end of December 2011. A number of U.S. bases in Iraq are due to be made into training facilities.
The secretary discussed the new set of U.S. and Iraqi priorities with both Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Defense Minister Abdal Qader al Obeidi, saying there were "important milestones to achieve" before the final US pullout in 2011.
"Between now and the end of 2011 when all US troops are scheduled to depart Iraq, we have a number of important milestones to achieve, including fair and secure elections, the seating of a new national government and a continued draw down of U.S. forces leading to our change of mission in August 2010," said Robert Gates.
The Iraqi defense minister stressed Iraq's top priority is to "combat terrorism" and that it needs a new partnership with the United States to do that.
He says that Iraq's most important concern and priority is to define a strategy to fight terrorism. He says, Iraq must also determine how to cooperate and coordinate, beginning now and until the end of 2011.
Obeidi also said the government urgently needs new U.S. fighter jets to police the country.
He says Iraq has an urgent need for new, sophisticated fighter jets, and that will not happen overnight ... As far as the Iraqi government and the Iraqi Army are concerned, he says, Iraq needs to see these planes protecting our skies before the end of 2011.
Gates was also scheduled to visit Iraq's northern Kurdish region, where regional elections were held during the weekend. Tensions between the Kurds and the central government in Baghdad over oil revenues and the disputed city of Kirkuk continue to worry U.S. officials.
In the wake of Prime Minister Maliki's visit for talks with President Obama last week in Washington, U.S. officials have been urging him to take larger strides in achieving reconciliation with Sunni-Muslim opposition parties and the Kurds.