U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates flew to Baghdad, after a 48-hour visit to Afghanistan, to press Iraqi leaders to resolve their differences over the status of the autonomous Kurdish region and the disputed city of Kirkuk. But his plan to meet with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was thwarted by a parliamentary uproar over a series deadly bombings on Tuesday.
Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell says the cancellation was not a snub, but was caused by the prime minister's obligation to parliament. A U.S. official says Prime Minister Maliki was summoned to defend his security policies in the wake of the multiple attacks, which have been claimed by al-Qaida in Iraq.
Secretary Gates did meet with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and other members of the presidency council, as planned.
Morrell says Gates gave his condolences on the bombings, and offered any needed U.S. help to investigate them and to improve security.
U.S. officials, including the number-two American commander here, Army Lieutenant General Charles Jacoby, say such occasional spectacular attacks are, in a way, evidence of the decline of al-Qaida in Iraq, which once staged dozens of attacks every day.
"These are terrorist attacks," said Lieutenant Jacoby. "This is not a civil war, period. It is not the blooming insurgency period. These are greatly reduced terrorist cells. They have been reduced to hiding in the shadows, planning for weeks and weeks and weeks to conduct attacks like this. And, as I said, it would be tough for any government, any country, to prevent these kinds of attacks."
The last two major attacks in Iraq were in August and October. General Jacoby says Iraqi security forces are improving every day, and took action in three of the four attacks on Tuesday that prevented them from being worse.
U.S. Defense Department press spokesman Geoff Morrell says Secretary Gates also met with the presidency council about the reduced capability of al-Qaida, and praised Iraqi leaders for preventing the attacks from rekindling ethnic strife.
Now that the presidency council and the parliament have approved an election law, Secretary Gates wants to talk to the prime minister and to Kurdish leaders about resolving broader differences over power sharing and internal borders.
U.S. officials say they are in a better position to mediate and press for the resolution of difficult issues, and to ease tensions between the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga militia, while the United States has a sizable military force in Iraq.
That force is scheduled to be reduced from nearly 120,000 to 50,000 by next October, with the bulk of the withdrawal planned for after the election and the formation of a new Iraqi government. U.S. officials say the postponement of the election from January to March 7 should not affect the October target.