BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates will meet Iraqi leaders for talks in Baghdad on Saturday after criticising what he called their disappointing progress in passing laws Washington views as critical to ending violence.
Gates, who flew into Baghdad on Friday night, met U.S. military commanders on Saturday to assess a troop build-up designed to buy time for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government to win over disaffected Sunni Arabs, who form the backbone of the four-year-old insurgency. His visit and frank criticism was a sign Washington is growing increasingly worried about what U.S. officials see as foot-dragging on laws on distributing oil revenues, control of regional oil fields and holding provincial elections.
Gates is the third senior U.S. official to visit Baghdad this week, following in the footsteps of the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East, Admiral William Fallon, and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte. He said he would echo their message to Maliki: “It is the same message that I have been delivering since December, that our troops are buying them time to pursue reconciliation, that frankly we are disappointed with the progress so far.”
The main Iraqi political blocs have so far shown a reluctance to compromise on any of the key issues. Shi’ites and Sunni Arabs are locked in a cycle of violence that many fear is pushing the country towards all-out civil war.
The second bombing of the revered Shi’ite al-Askari mosque in Samarra this week has alarmed U.S. officials, who fear it could derail reconciliation efforts and trigger a repeat of the wave of violence that was unleashed by the first attack in February 2006, killing tens of thousands.
A four-day curfew in Baghdad has largely kept a lid on retaliatory attacks in the capital, although a number of Sunni mosques have been torched or blown up elsewhere. In the latest attack, a Sunni mosque in the southern Shi’ite city of Basra was demolished in an explosion on Saturday, police said.
U.S. officials gave no details of Gates’ talks with the leading U.S. military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and his No. 2, Lieutenant-General Raymond Odierno.
Gates said on Friday that Petraeus had his full confidence and was not “pulling his punches at all in terms of the difficulties of the struggle in front of us”. He was responding to criticism from Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid who said he wished Petraeus would be more candid about the obstacles facing U.S. forces in Iraq. Democrats say there is little evidence the U.S. troop build-up is working.
U.S. President George W. Bush has sent an extra 30,000 troops to Iraq, mainly to secure Baghdad, boosting troop levels to 160,000 despite opposition from the Democratic-controlled U.S. Congress, which wants to start bringing soldiers home.
The Baghdad security plan was launched in mid-February and has had mixed results. It has been costly in the lives of U.S. soldiers, whose increased presence on the streets of the capital have made them more vulnerable to roadside bombs.
In its quarterly report on Iraq this week, the Pentagon said it was too soon to assess the crackdown. While violence was down in Baghdad, the overall level in Iraq was unchanged as militants had simply moved their bases outside the capital, it said.
Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker are due to make an assessment in September on whether the U.S. troop build-up is succeeding in taming the Sunni Arab insurgency and curbing sectarian violence.