BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Delayed elections in Iraq and a bloody attack this week will not derail U.S. troop withdrawal plans, U.S. officials said as Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Baghdad to meet Iraqi leaders.
Gates did not see one of his main Iraqi counterparts as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki cancelled their meeting in order to defend his government's record before parliament, two days after the bombings killed dozens of people in Baghdad.
The December 8 bombings were the third assault in four months on what should have been heavily protected government buildings, and seemed designed to undermine the Shi'ite Muslim prime minister's claim to have brought security to Iraq as he campaigns for the elections.
Police say the coordinated bombings across the Iraqi capital killed 112, but Health Ministry officials put the toll at 77. Insurgents linked with Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attacks.
The attackers struck just after Iraqi lawmakers and political leaders had ended weeks of wrangling to set March 7 as the date for the national election, weeks later than the original date in January.
This impasse had threatened to affect U.S. President Barack Obama's pledge to end combat operations in Iraq next August, before a full withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of 2011.
"We were very concerned," said Lieutenant-General Charles Jacoby, the top U.S. commander for day-to-day operations in Iraq. But he said the new 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.
The U.S. force in Iraq is supposed to fall to 50,000 by the end of August from around 115,000 now. At the same time, the United States plans to increase its troop numbers in Afghanistan to fight a resurgent Taliban.
In Baghdad, Gates met Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and other leaders to discuss the upcoming election and to press for reconciliation between majority Arabs and minority Kurds.
Haider al-Ebadi, a lawmaker close to Maliki, said the prime minister used the closed session of parliament to blame shortcomings in battling Al-Qaeda and other militants on political feuds and sectarian quotas that dictate appointments to security posts.
Maliki said Iraq should expect more such attacks in the lead-up to the national polls, which are likely to test Iraq's querulous democracy and its fragile security situation.
Other senior officials are expected to answer lawmakers' questions about the attacks late this week or early next week.
Gates told Iraqi leaders that the bombings were "a tragic reminder it's not over yet. There's still work to be done. This fight has to be carried out on a continuing basis."
The insurgents linked to Al-Qaeda vowed to continue their battle against the government.
"We are determined to uproot this government and pull down its pillars and target its points of strength. The list of targets will not end until the banner of one God is once again raised over Baghdad," the Sunni group, which considers Shi'ite Muslims like Maliki heretics, said on an Islamist website.
U.S. officials note, however, that the recent attacks have not triggered the kind of sectarian reprisals that they might have in the peak of Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence in 2006-07.
Jacoby said Al-Qaeda was "greatly diminished" in its ability to stage attacks and expressed confidence in Iraqi security forces. Still, he said, "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 toward 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 delays could foster instability.