US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he is assuring Iraqis of "the steadfastness of American support" but hanging over his discussions was also a clear message: Even if more troops were sent, Iraqis must take the lead in quelling the violence.
Gates, on his second day of a visit to the war zone, said he talked with Iraqi leaders about how the US can best play a supporting role. Gates planned more meetings yesterday.
The new Pentagon chief would not answer the key question on the minds of many, including US troops: Will he recommend an increase in the number of US forces in Iraq?
Speaking to reporters after meetings with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Iraqi officials on Thursday, Gates said the talks were "mainly on the overall approach, including the possibility of some additional assistance."
He said no troops numbers were discussed.
Gates also said he emphasized to al-Maliki "our enduring presence in the Persian Gulf."
Gates' visit comes as US President George W. Bush reassesses US policy in the war, which is widely opposed by the US public after more than three years of bloodshed. Among the president's options is whether to quickly add thousands of US troops to the 140,000 already in Iraq, in hopes of staunching the escalating violence in Baghdad and elsewhere.
Earlier on Thursday, he said Iran and Syria are playing a negative role in the violence. A special US commission, the Iraq Study Group, recently urged a diplomatic push that would involve all of Iraq's neighbors -- including Iran and Syria. Bush, however, has seemed disinclined to involve those two countries.
"We need to make damned sure that the neighbors understand that we're going to be here for a long time -- here being the Persian Gulf," said Gates, during a morning meeting with soldiers.
"We have been here for a long time, we will be here for a long time and everybody needs to remember that, both our friends and those who might consider themselves our adversaries," Gates told reporters.
He suggested that commitment will include keeping US logistics and support troops in Iraq for a lot longer than the combat forces.
Gates said he discussed with the Iraqis how their government could reverse the deteriorating security problem. Besides an unrelenting insurgency, killings and kidnappings between Sunnis and Shiites are approaching civil war dimensions with US and civilian casualties rising.
"One of the strong messages I received today was the desire of the Iraqi government to take a leadership role in addressing some of the challenges that face the country, above all the security problem here in Baghdad," Gates said during a press conference with Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obaidi.
Meanwhile, radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has agreed to allow supporters to rejoin the Iraqi government after a three-week boycott, officials close to the militia leader said, as political rivals pushed to form a coalition without him.
It was unclear whether a new coalition taking shape among Shiites, Kurds and one Sunni party would be able to govern without the backing of al-Sadr's 30 loyalists in the 275-member parliament, and his six ministers in the 38-member Cabinet.
The cleric's followers had boycotted politics to protest the prime minister's recent meeting with US President George W. Bush, but appear to have decided to go back to parliament to strengthen their bargaining power -- backed up by a militia army -- and avoid political isolation.
Shiites from parliament's largest bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, met on Thursday in the holy city of Najaf to seek approval for a coalition that crosses sectarian lines from the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Sistani is a revered cleric who holds sway over many Iraqi Shiites and is said to be alarmed at the sectarian bloodshed sweeping the country.
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