BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates met Iraqi leaders on Thursday as U.S. commanders said plans to reduce troop levels sharply by next summer were on track despite delayed elections and a major al Qaeda attack.
President Barack Obama has pledged to end combat operations in Iraq by August 31, 2010, before a full pullout by the end of 2011. The U.S. force in Iraq is supposed to be reduced to 50,000 by end of August from around 115,000 now.
Intense bickering among Iraq’s rival political factions has delayed national elections, Iraq’s first since 2005, from an original mid-January date to March 7.
“We were very concerned,” Lieutenant-General Charles Jacoby, the top U.S. commander for day-to-day operations in Iraq, said of the delay in passing an election law and setting a date for the vote. But he said the March election date “ended up being one that we can handle and still stay on our glide path.”
“We’re still on track and we are going to be able to accomplish the mission of reaching the transition force levels as we wanted to,” he told reporters travelling with Gates, who arrived in Baghdad after a three-day visit to Afghanistan.
In Baghdad, Gates had been due to meet Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki but that was cancelled after Maliki went to parliament to answer questions about Tuesday’s bomb attacks.
He did meet President Jalal Talabani and other members of the presidency council and spoke about security and the bombings. Police sources say 112 people died in the attacks while Health Ministry officials put the death toll at around 77.
“The bombings are a tragic reminder it’s not over yet,” Gates said through his office. “There’s still work to be done. This fight has to be carried out on a continuing basis.”
Violence in Iraq has fallen sharply in the past 18 months but Sunni Islamist insurgents including al Qaeda remain potent.
They appear to be shifting tactics to target government buildings such as ministries in an effort to undermine Shi’ite Prime Minister Maliki before the election, rather than soft targets such as markets as they did in the past.
Al Qaeda’s Iraq affiliate claimed responsibility for the attacks, as it has for similar bombings on October 25 and August 19.
Jacoby said the group was “greatly diminished” and appeared to be able to stage only one major strike every six to eight weeks. He expressed confidence in Iraqi security forces, saying they have made important strides. But he added: “There are obviously some gaps still.”
U.S. officials say the 60-day period after Iraq’s election will probably reveal whether the country will tip back into sectarian bloodshed or move towards stability and peace.
Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said it was important that a new Iraqi government “quickly and peacefully be formed” after the vote “because any delay creates the potential for instability.”
The U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, wants to retain a muscular U.S. presence, capable of assisting Iraqi troops or police, until the security situation is clear.
Under a bilateral security pact signed last year, all U.S. troops must withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011.
The date for the end of combat operations is not included in the agreement but was set by Obama as part of a pledge to U.S. voters to end the war in Iraq.
Writing by Adam Entous; Editing by Missy Ryan and David Stamp