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Gates Spends Final Day in Iraq Meeting Kurds

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates sounded an optimistic note about the possibility of speeding up U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq, Wednesday, after meeting for a second day with top Iraqi leaders and talking with U.S. and Iraqi military commanders.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates painted a mostly upbeat picture of the situation in Iraq, indicating that it was possible that more U.S. troops could come home sooner than anticipated.

Gates' stressed that, in any case, he saw no cause for a slowdown in the pace of U.S. troop pullouts, but that any acceleration, would necessarily depend on an assessment of the situation by U.S. Commander Ray Odierno.

"I don't think there's anything in the cards for a slowdown. I think there's at least - and I'm not going into any specifics - but I think there's at least some chance of a modest acceleration [of the troop withdrawal timetable] But, because of the way General Odierno sees things going, that remains to be seen," he said.

Gates added that he didn't "want to put General Odierno into a corner, but that the general was examining "all the possibilities and he's very encouraged."

Two U.S. brigades are due to be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of 2009, but Mr. Gates indicated that an additional brigade may be withdrawn early if the situation warrants. The United States currently has about 130,000 troops in Iraq, and all are scheduled to pull out by 2011.

Secretary Gates spent his final hours in Iraqi Kurdistan, meeting with the President of the semi-autonomous region, Massoud Barzani.

The secretary reportedly has been trying to mediate between Kurdish leaders and the central government in Baghdad, over a thorny territorial dispute over the oil-rich region of Kirkuk.

Gates noted, Tuesday, that the United States was prepared to work to help resolve the oil and land disputes, which have Kurds and Arabs at loggerheads.

The Iraqi parliament, until now, has failed in attempts to cobble together a bill over oil revenues that would satisfy both Kurds and Arabs.

The issue of a new constitution for Kurdistan, which was removed from the ballot in weekend elections, triggered anxiety in both Washington and Baghdad. The draft constitution laid claim to oil and gas rights that are contested by the central government.