Gates in Iraq as US forces near pullout
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates was set to meet Iraqi leaders Thursday after talks in Saudi Arabia where he sharply criticised Iran for exploiting unrest in the Gulf region and elsewhere.
Gates, who arrived in Baghdad on an unannounced visit Wednesday, will hold talks with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani, according to officials travelling with him, and visit American troops who ended combat operations in August ahead of a scheduled withdrawal by the end of this year.
Iran and regional developments figured in discussions during his short stop in Saudi Arabia, where he held talks with King Abdullah.
Gates's discussions with Abdullah took place against a backdrop of unrest and uprisings that have been sweeping the Arab world.
"We talked about how to prevent disruptive actions and extremist organisations trying to take advantage of the turbulences in the region," he said after the meeting.
"We already have evidence that the Iranians are trying to exploit the situation in Bahrain and we also have evidence that they're talking about what they can do to create problems elsewhere," Gates said, referring to Shiite-led protests crushed by the Sunni monarchy.
Gates was also expected to travel to northern Iraq for talks with Massud Barzani, president of the autonomous Kurdish region.
"The secretary will make a powerful case that it's important that we get a counterpart because we have some stuff to work out and it's in both our interests to make sure the ISF (Iraqi Security Forces) are in the right place at the end of 2011," an official said on condition of anonymity.
A senior US defense official said the Pentagon chief would also express support for Iraqi officials to "complete the government formation process, particularly to get security ministries dealt with."
More than a year after an indecisive general election, Iraq still has no defence, interior or national security ministers, even though Maliki stitched together a deal to form a national unity government in December.
Fewer than 50,000 US troops are currently in Iraq, down from a peak of more than 170,000 and ahead of the planned full withdrawal in late 2011.
Asked about a possible extension of the US military mission in Iraq, the defence official said Gates did not rule that out, but the request must come from Iraq.
"The ball is in their court," he said. "It would probably be in their interest to ask for it sooner rather than later because we're starting to run out of months."
General Babak Zebari, the Iraqi armed forces chief of staff, has warned that the US withdrawal was premature, saying his forces would not be able to ensure full security before 2020.
Gates told the US House of Representatives' Armed Services Committee in February that Baghdad would face sizeable "problems" after the withdrawal.
"There is certainly, on our part, an interest in having an additional presence" above levels set by a 2008 accord, he said.
The defense chief also predicted Iraqis will be unable to protect their own airspace, face intelligence challenges and "have problems with logistics and maintenance."
US Ambassador James Jeffrey told reporters on Friday that the 2008 agreement could be renegotiated by either side, but that Iraqi leaders had made no such request and Washington was going ahead with the pullout as planned.
The troop withdrawal is expected to accelerate from late summer, the defence official said.
He said Iraq would continue to face attacks by Al-Qaeda and other militant groups after this year, but that Washington did not see that as "a strategic threat to the overall stability" of the country.
Al-Qaeda's Iraq affiliate claimed responsibility for a March 29 suicide bombing in Tikrit in which 58 people died and 97 were wounded, according to SITE, a US group that monitors extremist websites.