BAGHDAD Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday he believes a secure and stable Iraq is within reach, although there's been an uptick in violence in the north where al-Qaida is trying to re-establish a foothold.
Gates' comments came as a car bomb exploded in a largely Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad, killing at least 14 people, police said. The explosion happened across the Tigris River from the Green Zone shortly before Gates' news conference with Iraq's defense minister.
Acknowledging the precarious nature of any security gains in the country, Gates said that much work remains to be done to ensure Iraqi forces are ready to take over more military duties from U.S. troops. Iraqis who have been fighting insurgents on the local level must be integrated into Iraqi security forces, for example, he said.
"I believe that a secure, stable Iraq is within reach," Gates said. However, he added, "We need to be patient."
Gates noted a decline in overall violence in Iraq during recent months, which has led to a substantial increase in the number of refugees returning home as well as international investment in the country despite nearly five years of war.
This, he said, has "led to a growing sense of normalcy and hope."
Still, Gates acknowledged increasing militant and terrorist activities in northern Iraq, a situation he discussed with U.S. commanders during his first visit to Mosul earlier Wednesday. He said he was pleased to learn that Iraqi troops were fighting back.
"I know that the Iraqi people are more than up to this challenge," Gates said. "... However, much remains to be done."
Army Col. Tony Thomas, a brigade commander, told reporters traveling with Gates that he and other senior commanders in the north are looking for additional U.S. troops and also would like the return of 1,400 Iraqi troops sent to Baghdad to provide "more combat power" to help stabilize areas such as Diyala province, Mosul and Samara to counter an uptick in violence, including suicide bombings.
Overall, there has been a steady decline in violence in Iraq in recent months, including dips in roadside bombs, other attacks and in both U.S. and Iraqi casualties. The U.S. is pressing Iraqi leaders to take advantage of the improved security to make the political reforms needed to stabilize the fledgling democracy.
Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi said he and Gates discussed requirements to better prepare the Iraqi Army. He said they are "working very hard" to accomplish all the goals for 2007, including training and equipping the Iraqi armed forces as well as building a strong system of command and control.
Gates is using his sixth trip to Iraq to assess whether the downturn in violence in parts of the country can be sustained, and whether Iran is working to quell the shipment of arms into Iraq.
The Pentagon is being cautious not to declare victory yet in either case. For example, senior defense officials traveling with the secretary said that any proposal to move the Marines out of Iraq and into a greater role in Afghanistan, as proposed not long ago by Marine Commandant Gen. James Conway, will be viewed cautiously by Gates.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issues and the private nature of the consultations, emphasized that critical questions remain including how seriously to take indications of a decline in the amount of Iranian weapons coming into Iraq.
The officials said it has yet to be proven, through either intelligence or other assessments, that a significant portion of the reduction in violence is due to any deliberate policy by the Iranian government.The U.S. military has said on numerous occasions that deadly roadside bomb material has been traced to Iranian suppliers, and suggested that it would be highly unlikely for them to be acting without Tehran's knowledge or tacit approval.
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