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US Defense Secretary Urges Iraq Leaders to Reconcile Shi'ites, Sunnis

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the U.S. military presence in Iraq is not open-ended. He has urged the Iraqi factions to ramp up their efforts for political reconciliation. Gates spoke on a surprise visit to Iraq at the end of his regional tour. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from our Middle East bureau in Cairo.

At a joint news conference with the Iraqi defense minister, Gates warned that the U.S. military presence in Iraq is not open-ended, and he urged the rival political factions to reconcile quickly and move forward. "Our commitment to Iraq is long-term, but it is not a commitment to have our young men and women patrolling Iraq's streets open-endedly," he said.

The U.S. defense secretary said the so-called "surge" in U.S. troops is aimed at, in his words, "buying time" for the Iraqi government to make progress on reconciliation. He said the Iraqis' progress toward political reconciliation could affect the decision on whether those troops stay.

He urged the Iraqi parliament not to adjourn the legislative session without passing new laws on political reconciliation and the sharing of petroleum revenues between religious and ethnic groups. "These measures will not fix all of the problems in Iraq, but they will manifest the will of the entire government of Iraq to be a government for all of the people of Iraq in the future," he said.

Gates said he "respectfully disagree[s]" with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who expressed a blunt assessment of the Iraq situation. Reid said on Thursday that he told President Bush the war in Iraq is "lost."

Gates said he is "moderately optimistic" that there will be "steady progress" toward ending the violence. But he also said tough times are likely ahead.

The defense secretary's surprise visit to Iraq - his third - comes amid a surge in violence that has been particularly deadly, even by Iraqi standards. More than 200 people have been killed since Wednesday in a series of massive car bombings.

Last week, a suicide bomber penetrated the intense security of Baghdad's Green Zone and blew himself up in the parliament's cafeteria as lawmakers were having lunch.