CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE SPEICHER, Iraq -- U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates finished a three-day visit to Iraq, meeting with troops deployed to U.S. Division-North, April 8.

In what Gates said will likely be his final visit to Iraq, the Pentagon's top official thanked U.S. Soldiers of the 4th Advise and Assist Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, based out of Contingency Operating Site Marez, for their continued role in the advise, train and assist mission during Operation New Dawn.

Gates fielded questions from Soldiers ranging from the possibility of extending the U.S. military's presence in Iraq to the current budget deliberations in Washington, D.C.

As ongoing budget negotiations and implications on military pay dominated news headlines, Gates reassured the Soldiers that he would do his best to support their needs.

"It's been my responsibility to make sure you have whatever you need to complete your mission successfully and come home safely," Gates said.

A U.S. military presence could remain in Iraq past the current Dec. 31, 2011 deadline in accordance with the security forces agreement if the Iraqi government requests U.S. assistance, Gates said.

Gates noted as U.S. forces transition home from Iraq and Afghanistan, Soldiers will be afforded more time at home as deployments become less frequent.

The additional time spent at home stations will also allow the U.S. Army to reset and transition back to conventional warfighting roles from the advise and assist mission throughout Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.

Gates offered his personal gratitude to the Soldiers and their families for the continued dedication to the mission in Iraq.

"I've really just come here to thank you," Gates said. "Thank you for your service, for what you've accomplished over the last number of years, and through you, thank your families."

Gates sat for lunch with the Soldiers before traveling to United Arab Emirates to continue meetings with Middle East leaders and discuss developments in the region.