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U.S. Defense Secretary In Iraq To Talk Security

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (file photo)
(RFE/RL) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has arrived in Iraq as part of a regional trip that has already taken him to Israel and Jordan.

But, as is customary with visits by high-level U.S. officials, the fly-in was not announced beforehand. He arrived at a U.S. military base south of Baghdad and is to remain in Iraq for two days.

During his visit, Gates is expected to meet with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Defense Minister Abd al-Qadir Jasim.

At the top of the agenda are security issues, including U.S. arms sales to the still fragile Iraqi government.

Washington wants to be sure Iraq's armed forces are strong enough to compensate for the planned gradual withdrawal of all U.S. soldiers from Iraq by the end of 2011.

U.S. troops withdrew from urban bases in Iraq at the end of last month.

Gates and Iraqi officials are expected to discuss Baghdad's interest in acquiring U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets that would greatly boost the Iraqi military's ability to provide air support for its own troops or counter any threats from beyond its borders.

Iraqi officials have said previously they hope to acquire as many as 96 of the planes through 2020. That is part of potential U.S. arms sales to Iraq that could total some $9 billion as U.S. forces withdraw. The sales could also include tanks, armed helicopters, and other heavy weaponry.

Kurdish Visit

But the discussions of ways to bolster Iraq's military capabilities make up only half of Gates' itinerary for this visit. He is also due to travel to northern Iraq to hold separate talks with Kurdish officials there.

Washington is worried by a surge in tensions between the largely autonomous northern Kurdish region and the Arab-led government in Baghdad over oil and land disputes.

The Kurdish regional government lays claim to the oil-rich areas around Kirkuk, a multiethnic city that many Kurds regard as their natural capital.

But Kirkuk's Arab and Turkoman communities dispute the Kurdish claims and tensions have risen in recent months with Kurdish charges that the Baghdad government is siding with its rivals.

Particularly sensitive have been government moves to redeploy Kurdish units in the Iraqi Army away from disputed areas and replace them with non-Kurdish units. Kurdish officials have charged Baghdad with trying to change the local power balance in an effort to weaken the Kurdish position.

U.S. officials speaking privately about Gates' visit say that Washington hopes to be an "honest broker" in the Kurdish-Baghdad dispute.

The dispute has become the newest hotspot in the always tense balance between Iraq's major ethnic and sectarian groups.

Washington is concerned that unless all the groups make greater progress toward solving their differences the country's fragile coalition government could prove unable to survive the withdrawal of U.S. forces in a few years' time.

Gates' visit is the second by a top U.S. official since U.S. forces pulled back from Iraqi cities on June 30. It comes after U.S. Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Iraq on July 4.

with news agency reports