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Iraq

Defense Secretary Makes Unannounced Iraq Visit

Defense Secretary Robert Gates greets Iraqi soldiers at a base in Talil, Iraq, where they serve with American troops. Gates is on a two-day visit to Iraq. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Defense Secretary Robert Gates greets Iraqi soldiers at a base in Talil, Iraq, where they serve with American troops. Gates is on a two-day visit to Iraq.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is paying an unannounced visit Tuesday to Baghdad for talks that are expected to include rules of engagement for U.S. troops as they try to wind down their involvement in Iraq.

The trip is expected to include a visit to Iraq's Kurdish region, where tensions between Kurds and Arabs have been growing over oil-rich territory in the country's north.

Gates flew Tuesday from Amman, Jordan, to a U.S. command post in Talil, in southern Iraq. The post is considered a model for U.S. troops as they shift from direct combat to advising and supporting Iraqi forces.

"What you are doing here is the next phase of our progress in Iraq," Gates told the American soldiers. Speaking of the new relationship between U.S. and Iraqi troops, he said, "nobody's the boss or the occupier."

Gates' visit comes just days after an incident in which an Iraqi army officer detained U.S. soldiers who killed three Iraqis during a firefight. The incident pointed up friction between U.S. and Iraqi government forces as the Americans pull back to bases outside Iraqi cities.

U.S. military officials say the brief standoff occurred July 21, when a U.S. convoy came under fire in the Abu Ghraib area west of Baghdad. The three Iraqi dead included one man described as a bystander.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was visiting the U.S. at the time, made a point of saying that the Americans were entitled to defend themselves and that the Iraqi officer who sought to detain was "wrong" and "out of line."

"I don't think [Gates' visit] is going to be a showdown," said Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, "just a question of working out the operational details" of Iraqi and U.S. forces working together.

Boot said Gates still has a fair amount of leverage with the Iraqi government. "We're still providing services that the Iraqis desperately need," he said. "I don't think Maliki or the Iraqi military wants us to leave prematurely."

Kimberly Kagan, the president of the Institute for the Study of War, points out that Iraq is at the start of an election campaign, and some Iraqi rhetoric against the U.S. forces is political theater.

"We need to be attentive to the fact that a lot of Iraqi politicians are posturing for the Iraqi electorate," she said.

Kagan, who returned from a trip that included five days in Iraq, said that while the press plays up fiery exchanges between Iraqi officials and the U.S., "the reality on the ground is much more stable." She predicts that "at a practical level, [Gates] will see that American and Iraqi troops are working things out."

One other source of worry that Gates is likely to discuss is the growing tension between Kurds and Arabs in Iraq's north. Daniel Serwer, who studies post-conflict societies at the United States Institute of Peace, said Americans have been playing a crucial balancing role between the two sides.

"There comes a time in the withdrawal process when the Americans are going to have to let go," Serwer said, but he added that it will take a lot of confidence in the two sides before the U.S. can do that.

"I wouldn't be surprised if Gates says [to Iraqi officials], 'I can't keep my troops up there in this confrontation zone indefinitely. You have to be thinking about that,' " Serwer said.

The Kurdish region just held a long-delayed vote for a regional president and parliament on Saturday. Initial results show that a new opposition bloc made an unexpectedly strong showing, although the main Kurdish parties are expected to remain in power.

Kagan said she thinks the defense secretary will see that the U.S. military has been largely successful in preparing Iraqi forces to take over security, especially in the cities.

"The next issue is what will be the partnership between the U.S. and the government of Iraq now that this security transition has taken place. There's actually a fair opportunity for Iraq to be a major strategic partner in the region," she said.

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