U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made an unannounced visit to Baghdad where he told reporters a secure and stable Iraq is within reach. As VOA's Cindy Saine reports from Washington, the secretary's visit was marred by a car bomb blast in central Baghdad that killed at least 14 people.
In a joint news conference in Baghdad with Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul al-Qadir, Defense Secretary Gates said he found a dramatic change in the security situation during his visit to the country. He said the decline in overall violence has led to a substantial increase in the number of refugees returning home after almost five years of war. Gates said much still needs to be done, such as integrating Iraqis who have been fighting al-Qaida on the local level into the country's security forces. But he expressed optimism that the challenges can be met.
"More than ever, I believe that the goal of a secure, stable and democratic Iraq is within reach. We need to be patient, but we also need to be absolutely resolved in our desire to see the nascent signs of hope across Iraq expand and flourish so that all Iraqis can enjoy peace and prosperity," Gates said.
Asked when the declining violence might allow the United States to begin removing its heavy military machinery and equipment from Baghdad, Gates said the question itself speaks to the progress that has been made.
"First of all, I can understand the nature of the concern with regard to increasingly heavy traffic here in Baghdad. I saw something here today that I have not seen in the previous five visits that I've made - I saw a traffic jam," he said.
Gates arrived in Mosul in northern Iraq, before heading to Baghdad. He acknowledged increasing terrorist activities in northern Iraq, and said U.S. commanders there are looking forward to the deployment of more Iraqi forces. He said no request has been made for additional U.S. combat troops for northern Iraq.
During his brief visit, the defense secretary held meetings with U.S. military commanders and with senior Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Gates praised Mr. Maliki for signing a declaration of principles on the long term relationship with the United States.
Secretary Gates is using his meetings with Iraqi government officials to press them to use the relative lull in violence to pass key reconciliation legislation and to improve government services to Iraqi citizens.