US Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Iraq on a surprise visit yesterday to discuss security issues and arms sales as the two nations look toward the gradual withdrawal of all US forces by the end of 2011.
Gates will also try to help bridge a deep divide between Iraq’s ethnic Kurds and majority Arabs that many fear may undermine security gains, a senior US defense official said.
He was to hold talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Defense Minister Abdel Qader Jassim.
One of the topics the officials were expected to discuss was Baghdad’s interest in acquiring Lockheed Martin Corp’s F-16 multirole fighter jets to counter possible threats from neighboring nations after US forces leave.
Gates was also to visit the largely autonomous northern Kurdish region, where officials appear to be drifting farther from the Arab-led government in Baghdad in an impasse over oil and disputed land.
The US wants to prevent any clashes that might play into the hands of diehard Sunni insurgents who would style themselves a bulwark against Kurdish encroachment.
Gates was to hold talks wtih Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan region, which has signed oil deals with foreign firms that Iraqi Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahristani deems illegal.
“We’re very much positioned now as kind of an honest broker,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
He said US forces in northern Iraq were playing an important “confidence-building” role in disputes involving Kurdish security forces stationed outside Kurdistan.
“The Arab-Kurd dimension is probably the most pressing one at the moment in terms of the issues that really need to get dealt with to consolidate our security gains,” he said.
Gates hopes to build on talks last week between Maliki and US President Barack Obama in Washington seeking to establish what both countries have called “more normal” bilateral ties as US forces stand down in Iraq.
Part of this is the billions of dollars Iraq is expected to spend on arms. Baghdad wanted to buy an initial squadron of 18 F-16s this year, with a goal to acquire as many as 96 through 2020, Lieutenant General Anwar Ahmed, head of the Iraqi Air Force, said in March, citing fears of Iran and Syria.
“We’ve said that we think it’s a good idea that they go with a multi-role fighter — that it be ours,” the US official said.
“We think that it’s also in Iraq’s interest to buy their weapons from as few suppliers as possible, because you’re talking about logistics, maintenance, interoperability,” the official said.