BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived on Wednesday in Baghdad where he will urge Iraq to cement political stability ahead of plans to complete a U.S. withdrawal this year.
Gates, who has visited Iraq around a dozen times since he became defence secretary in 2006, will call on Iraqi leaders to fill key cabinet vacancies and shore up a wobbly coalition government formed late last year, U.S. defence officials said.
“He’ll be there to reaffirm the administration’s commitment to a long-term partnership with Iraq,” a senior U.S. defence official said on condition of anonymity.
The visit from Gates comes as Washington grapples with unprecedented political turmoil across the Arab world and looks to wind down its involvement in Iraq more than eight years after the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein. Gates is expected to step down this year.
Violence has subsided substantially in Iraq from its peak in 2006 and 2007, but a stubborn insurgency remains capable of mounting major attacks. Just last week, gunmen killed almost 60 people at a provincial council headquarters.
The continued attacks raise questions about whether Iraqi forces can secure the country after the remaining 47,000 U.S. soldiers withdraw at the end of 2011 as planned. There has been speculation that Iraq could ask them to stay longer.
The United States, engaged in a long war in Afghanistan and now in military action in Libya, has been withdrawing equipment and closing bases in Iraq for some time, but commanders plan to accelerate the final withdrawal in late summer or early fall, the defence official said.
The Obama administration has signalled its openness to some sort of continued presence if Iraq asks for it.
“We are moving forward with the drawdown of our forces in compliance with the (current) security agreement,” the defence official said.
“If they are going to ask for modification or anything else, it would probably be in their interest to ask for it sooner rather than later because we’re starting to run out of months. … The ball is in their court.”
Gates will press Iraqi leaders to ensure a new defence minister is put in place quickly. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki formed a Shi’ite-led government including Sunni and Kurdish factions in December, but key security posts remain vacant.
Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s Iraqiya alliance, which won the most votes last year’s elections with the backing of minority Sunnis, has been promised the post.
“It’s in both our interests to make sure that Iraqi security forces are in the right place at the end of 2011,” the U.S. official said.