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Gates in Iraq to visit troops, assess path to elections

EARLIER STORY: Gates gives Afghan war leadership a pep talk

BAGHDAD — Flying from one war to the next, Defense Secretary Robert Gates left Afghanistan and landed in Baghdad on Thursday. He immediately headed to the heart of the city with his policy team in Black Hawk helicopters to meet with Iraq President Jalal Talabani.

Gates’ unannounced stop comes less than a week after Iraqi lawmakers agreed on critical election legislation, following personal telephone pleas from President Barack Obama, and two days after five simultaneous car bombs detonated in the capital, killing 127 people. 

“The bombings are a tragic reminder it’s not over yet. There’s still work to be done. This fight has to be carried out on a continuing basis,” Gates said during the hourlong meeting, according to his spokesman, Geoff Morrell.

The Pentagon chief was supposed to meet with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, but the Iraqi leader was unexpectedly called to appear before parliament to respond to inquiries about the bombings. Al-Maliki asked to reschedule for Friday.

Facing Talabani and his presidency council, Gates offered condolences to the bombing victims and praised the government for not responding to al-Qaida’s attempt to “re-spark” sectarian violence.

“It was predominantly a security conversation,” Morrell said.

National elections now are reset for March 7, a delay of a little more than one month. But U.S. officials said it would have no effect on either the president’s requirement to draw down forces in Iraq to 50,000 by the end of next summer, or Gen. Raymond Odierno’s previously stated hopes to accelerate the pace by which he can send troops home from their deployments early.

“It is not expected to delay the drawdown of U.S. forces,” Morrell said.

Briefing reporters on Gates’ plane before landing, a senior defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the Obama administration only gave Odierno a target force size and due date, leaving the general to decide for himself how fast he wants to reach that goal.

In the Pentagon’s view, Iraq’s ability to form a new government in the first 60 days following the vote will be critical.

In the post-election period of 2006, al-Qaida and others exploited lingering political fractures by ramping up attacks, the official said.

By now, however, al-Qaida in Iraq is a shadow of its former self, defense officials insist.

“I think al-Qaida has clearly morphed into a purely terrorist organization,” said the official, and no longer should be considered an insurgency seeking to claim territory or governing control of the population.

In a briefing held at Camp Victory, Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby, the second-ranking general in Iraq, said the terrorist organization that once was behind multiple daily attacks, now requires weeks of planning to stage one singular, though spectacular, event.

Jacoby said he believes al-Qaida’s claim of responsibility for this week’s bombings.

“I think it’s all about the election,” he said. “As long as there’s a terrorist remaining, they’ll continue to plan and do their best and try to disrupt this. “But they can’t. They can’t disrupt it. Iraq moves forward, security forces improve, election laws get passed, political parties are forming, people are speaking their minds. Newspapers are publishing articles, television is broadcasting opinions, and so they — they can’t stop it.”


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