US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates met Iraqi Kurdish President Massud Barzani yesterday as he urged Iraq’s communities to heal their political rifts before US forces withdraw at the end of 2011.
His talks with Barzani in the Kurdish regional capital Arbil came on the second day of a surprise trip to Iraq in which he has spoken of a new era in the country as US troops play a less dominant role.
But Gates, who was accompanied on his trip to the autonomous Kurdish region by the top US commander in Iraq General Ray Odierno, also called on Iraq’s Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds to settle their power-sharing disputes while US troops remain on the ground.
“We will continue to support Iraq’s progress toward national unity,” he said at a press conference in Baghdad on Tuesday. “And we will encourage progress toward ensuring all of Iraq’s communities are represented in its security forces and institutions.”
Odierno told reporters that while violence continues to decline overall in Iraq, tensions between Iraqi Kurds and Arabs over boundaries and oil revenues represent the biggest threat to the country’s stability.
“We think that many of the insurgent groups are trying to exploit Kurd-Arab tensions in the north,” he said.
The US military is closely monitoring the situation and has set up liaison offices with commanders of Kurdish militia and Baghdad government forces to try to prevent tensions from escalating, he said.
Gates’s visit follows elections in the Kurdish region on Saturday that saw a reform-minded opposition group hail a breakthrough against the long-dominant former rebel factions of Barzani and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
Barzani was re-elected as regional president but with a reduced majority, prelimary results showed.
On Tuesday, Gates, who is on his first visit to Iraq since US troops withdrew from urban areas at the end of last month under a November security pact with Baghdad, said the transition had been a success so far.
“The feedback I got here is that the agreement has changed the chemistry of the relationship ... in a positive way,” Gates told reporters. “Nobody’s the boss or the occupier or however you want to put it, but there’s a real sense of empowerment by the Iraqis.”
An Iraqi army operation launched on Tuesday appeared to underscore his point, as Baghdad authorities moved without US troops against a camp housing members of exiled Iranian opposition group the People’s Mujahedeen.
Odierno said he had no advance warning of the operation at Camp Ashraf and that US units were not involved.
Iran’s activities in Iraq remained a cause for concern, Odierno said, repeating Washington’s charges that Tehran was sending arms to militia groups.
In his talks in Baghdad, Gates said the US administration was working to help Iraq build up its own military while offering more training.
Odierno confirmed Baghdad had discussed possibly buying US F-16 fighter aircraft, and added that a US air force team will travel to Iraq to help Baghdad examine possible options for developing a modern air force.