Wednesday, July 29, 2009

U.S.-Iraq Relations Enter a New Phase, Gates Says

By YOCHI J. DREAZEN Wall Street Journal BAGHDAD -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the American military withdrawal from Iraqi cities went fairly smoothly, clearing the way for Baghdad to reshape its relationship with the U.S. and begin assuming primary security responsibility for the entire country. Mr. Gates's unannounced trip on Tuesday to Iraq came at a pivotal moment for Washington and Baghdad, as the two countries try to take advantage of a decline in Iraq's violence to focus attention on trade, weapons sales and nonmilitary aspects of their complex relationship. Robert Gates, at right, greets U.S. troops from the 4th Brigade, 1st Armored Division at Contingency Operating Base Adder in Tallil, Iraq, on Tuesday. On Wednesday, Mr. Gates is slated to visit Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish region, where, he said, the U.S. is prepared to help resolve a growing political dispute between Arabs and Kurds over land and oil. It was Mr. Gates's first visit to Iraq since U.S. forces left the country's cities in late June, a milestone both nations describe as the first step toward a complete American military withdrawal by the end of 2011. In the first days after the pullout from Iraq's cities, several U.S. commanders complained that the Iraqis were imposing too many restrictions on U.S. forces, barring them from certain roads and demanding sensitive information about future U.S. ground convoys. Fueling tensions, an Iraqi officer tried to detain U.S. soldiers this month after they killed three Iraqi civilians while chasing militants near the restive city of Abu Ghraib. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, on a visit to Washington last week, said the Iraqi officer had been "out of line." Mr. Gates acknowledged some early miscues, but said U.S. and Iraqi officials had hammered out their differences and were cooperating closely on security matters. "The agreement has changed the chemistry of the relationship," Mr. Gates told reporters. "Nobody's the boss or the occupier or however you want to put it, but there's a real sense of empowerment by the Iraqis." Gen. Ray Odierno, the top American commander in Iraq, attributed the turnaround to a previously undisclosed videoconference involving more than 500 Iraqi and American officers. Gen. Odierno said the July 9 session allowed the two sides to better clarify the terms of the security agreement, reducing disputes over its implementation. Mr. Maliki recently said that some U.S. forces might be allowed to remain in Iraq after 2011, but Gen. Odierno said he was still operating under the assumption that a full U.S. withdrawal would occur within the next 30 months. U.S. military officials are working with the Iraqis on the next stages of the drawdown. U.S. commanders say roughly 80,000 of the 130,000 U.S. troops currently in Iraq will leave the country by August 2010. At the same time, U.S. officials want to build a long-term relationship with Iraq that more closely resembles America's ties to other Arab allies. One complicated aspect of that shift is Iraq's request for American F-16 fighter jets. In his meetings in Washington with President Barack Obama and other senior U.S. officials last week, Mr. Maliki indicated Baghdad wants to buy 18 F-16s by the end of 2011 and as many as 96 by 2020. Congress would need to sign off on the request before Lockheed Martin Corp. could begin building the fighters, and Gen. Odierno acknowledged it would be impossible to deliver them to Iraq by 2011. Iraq has indicated it is prepared to buy jets from Russia or France if it can't buy them from the U.S. Gen. Odierno said the U.S. had begun to look for "creative solutions" to deliver the F-16s.

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