BAGHDAD — U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in Iraq Thursday to meet with Iraqi officials amid a wave of bombings that have claimed 127 lives and rattled the country's government. U.S. military leaders who greeted Gates defended the Iraqi security forces' response to the attacks.
The second leg of Gates' unannounced tour of two major U.S. war zones came as al-Qaida's umbrella group in Iraq claimed responsibility Thursday for the strikes. The bombings wounded 500 people; the group warned of more to come.
Senior U.S. military officials defended the Iraqi forces' efforts even after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki expressed his displeasure by dismissing his head of security operations.
"It would be tough for any country, any government to prevent these kinds of attacks," said Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq.
Gates was expected to press Iraq's leaders for political progress between the Kurds and other ethnic groups. He was to meet privately with al-Maliki and President Jalal Talibani.
Jacoby said that security vulnerabilities in Baghdad had been exploited in Tuesday's bombings and called it a "complicated" situation.
"There are some obvious gaps" to Iraq's ability to defend itself, but "they're committed to it," he told reporters.
Jacoby and other U.S. officials said the attack was a sign that al-Qaida's grip on the fractured nation was weakening. With fewer fighters, the Iraqi insurgent force has turned its focus from seizing territory to occasional high-profile suicide bombings aimed at destabilizing the government.
"I think it's all about the election right now," Jacoby said.
Regardless, the bombings have raised tough questions for al-Maliki about the ability of Iraq's security forces ahead of next year's planned withdrawal of U.S. combat troops. The U.S. says it plans to keep the bulk of its 120,000 forces in Iraq through the country's March 7 elections to counter violence; but it plans to leave the country entirely by December 2011.
Jacoby said that Iraqi security forces have "stepped up" in recent months and called it an "epiphany" for them on June 30, when U.S. combat troops were ordered out of major cities.
Gates landed at Baghdad airport following a three-day trip to Afghanistan. In Kabul, he vowed to government and military leaders that the U.S. would not abandon them in their struggle against Taliban insurgents, despite plans to start pulling troops out in July 2011.
"We will have a large number of forces here for some period after that," he told about a dozen of Afghan's top generals at the Kabul airport.
"This is a relationship forged in blood," Gates said. "We will see it to the end."