• Associated Press National Security Writer Bob Burns, right, queries Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates onboard a Dover Air Force Base C-17 Globemaster aircraft prior to departing from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for Baghdad, April. 6, 2011.

    Burns interviews Gates

    Associated Press National Security Writer Bob Burns, right, queries Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates onboard a Dover Air Force Base C-17 Globemaster aircraft prior to departing from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for Baghdad, April. 6, 2011.

  • U.S. Forces-Iraq Commander Gen. Lloyd Austin geets U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates as he arrives at Baghdad International Airport, Iraq, April 6, 2011. Gates is scheduled to visit troops and meet with Iraqi leaders during his visit.

    Austin greets Gates

    U.S. Forces-Iraq Commander Gen. Lloyd Austin geets U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates as he arrives at Baghdad International Airport, Iraq, April 6, 2011. Gates is scheduled to visit troops and meet with Iraqi leaders during his visit.

  • Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates speaks with Soldiers from United States Division-Center during a visit to Camp Liberty, Iraq, April 7, 2011. During the visit, Gates spoke with Soldiers from the division about the U.S. drawdown in Iraq, the repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, and other changes throughout the Army.

    Gates talks to troops in Iraq

    Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates speaks with Soldiers from United States Division-Center during a visit to Camp Liberty, Iraq, April 7, 2011. During the visit, Gates spoke with Soldiers from the division about the U.S. drawdown in Iraq, the repeal...

BAGHDAD, April 6, 2011 -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived here this evening to visit U.S. troops and to meet with Iraqi officials.

The secretary traveled here from Saudi Arabia, where he met with King Abdullah earlier today.

Gates is scheduled to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani, and also with Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq.

A senior Defense Department official told reporters traveling with the secretary that in his meetings with Iraqi officials, Gates plans to discuss the importance of completing the formation of Iraq's government, especially the security-related ministries, as the United States draws down its forces. He'll also discuss the need for progress in implementing the reconciliation agreements that were part of the initial government formation process in the fall, the official said.

Gates also will reaffirm the U.S. commitment to a long-term partnership with Iraq, the official added, and will emphasize the mutual benefits of a relationship that continues beyond the scheduled departure of U.S. forces by the year's end.

The official said the post-2011 relationship probably will be driven by three factors: the state of the Iraqi security forces, stability challenges Iraq will face, and the U.S. ability to engage with Iraq across a whole range of activities.

Iraq's security forces are doing a good job with internal security, the official said.

"Keep in mind we've drawn down over 100,000 forces and handed over security responsibility for the entire country to the Iraqi security forces over the last two years," he said, "and security incidents wiggle around, but they're basically flat at the lowest levels that they've been for the entire war."

The bigger challenge facing the Iraqi security forces, he added, is external defense -- such as protecting Iraqi airspace -- because Iraq's forces haven't been trained and equipped for such a large conventional capability.

"That will be something that they'll have to continue to work on moving forward," he said.

Extremist groups will continue to pose a challenge in Iraq beyond 2011, the official said.

"I don't think we see it as a strategic threat to the overall stability or viability of the Iraqi state," he added, "but you will see organizations like al-Qaida in Iraq and some of the other extremist groups that are capable of periodic spectacular attacks, just as they are today."

The ability of the United States to engage with Iraq across a spectrum of diplomatic, cultural, economic, educational, scientific and security activities beyond 2011 rests upon adequate funding for the State Department, the official said, noting that Gates has stressed this point in congressional testimony.

"The State Department has asked for money to continue the police training mission," the official said. "We think that's incredibly important, so that the police can get up to a capability so that they take over the internal security mission and the Iraqi army gets out of that job over time.

"The State Department has asked for money so that they can have a robust presence throughout Iraq, not just in Baghdad," the official continued. "Then we could have consulates in the north and the south, and some temporary diplomatic facilities along the Arab-Kurd fault line. It's important that the State Department gets the money for that."

The official also stressed the need for Congress to fund continued support for Iraq's security forces and to provide the funding and authorities needed to stand up an office of security cooperation in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to continue security assistance and cooperation after 2011.

"That's a basket of things that fall under the State Department and their [fiscal 2011 and 2012 budget requests] that the secretary feels very strongly needs to be resourced," the official said.

Page last updated Thu April 7th, 2011 at 06:03