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US, Iraqi Officials Exchange Maps on Future Deployments

Senior U.S. and Iraqi defense officials exchanged maps Thursday, indicating where U.S. troops might be stationed in the future, as Iraqi troops gradually take primary responsibility for the country's security. The exchange happened during a meeting between Iraq's defense minister and the U.S. secretary of defense. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.

Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul Qadir al-Obeidi announced the exchange of maps at a news conference, but he would not say when the full transition to Iraqi responsibility might happen.

Minister al-Obeidi said it must be a gradual process that ensures that as coalition troops withdraw from each area there is no security vacuum left behind. The minister indicated the transitions will happen as soon as possible, saying they are a "technical issue," not a political one.

At the same news conference, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the goal of the talks about the future is to develop what he called a "normalized long term security relationship and partnership." He said Iraqi forces grew and improved significantly during the last year, but he also said the incidents in which nine U.S. soldiers were killed this week are evidence that there is much more work to do.

"My understanding is that al-Qaida largely has been cleared from al-Anbar Province, and has largely been cleared from Baghdad," said Robert Gates. "I think General Petraeus has briefed repeatedly that they saw al-Qaida being squeezed particularly to the north. And the key is to do in these provinces where this offensive is underway what he has accomplished elsewhere, and that is to clear and then hold. And frankly, after these places there's not many places they can go."

Secretary Gates was referring to the current U.S. offensive in provinces north of Baghdad.

The secretary also said a major challenge for the coming year in Iraq will be the same one U.S. and Iraqi officials have faced for several months already - to expand progress toward local reconciliation in many areas to the national level.