Secretary Gates Observes U.S, Iraq Cooperation

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Defense Secretary Robert Gates is returning from a three day trip to the Mideast. In Iraq, he expressed satisfaction with the way Iraqi troops are taking over security responsibilities from U.S. forces. But U.S. commanders in Iraq remain concerned about Kurd-Arab tension in the northern part of the country. They worry that insurgent groups might try to exacerbate and exploit the tension.


And now to the other war. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is heading home today after wrapping up his first trip to Iraq this year. He used the visit to push the country's leaders to settle their differences, and do it while U.S. troops are still around to help with security.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly is traveling with Secretary Gates and has this report.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Let me take you behind the scenes here in Iraq for a glimpse of what the new mission for U.S. troops here looks like.

Major LANCE VARNEY: So, in the room there is essentially two sides. On that side over there is the United States Army guys, us, Fourth Brigade, along with theā€¦

KELLY: That's Major Lance Varney. He's giving a tour of the brand new joint operations center at Tallil Airbase in southern Iraq. It's a big space covered in thick flowered carpet. And, as we just heard, the U.S. army sits on one side, the Iraqis on the other. But they're in the same room and there's a big conference table in the middle where they and their translators can gather and share intelligence and ideas.

Secretary Gates says the cooperation with Iraqis that he sees in Tallil is a model for U.S. forces all over Iraq as they shift from combat duty to support roles. And Gates says he's heartened by how well things have gone just this month, since the U.S. handed over control of Iraqi cities to Iraqi security forces.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): There is a sense of equal parts in this now and that kind of nobody is the boss or the occupier or however you want to put it - but a real sense of empowerment on the part of the Iraqis. And it's resulting in more successful operations, more good intelligence and so on.

KELLY: Still, there is a lot of work to do between now and the end of 2011 when all U.S. forces are scheduled to leave Iraq. For example, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, says he doesn't think Iraqis will be ready to conduct their own air patrols by the 2011 deadline. The Iraqis have helicopters, Odierno says, but they don't have fighter jets.

General RAY ODIERNO (Commander in Iraq): They can't intercept the jet that would come into their own airspace, for example. So, we have to make sure they have that kind of capacity by the beginning of 2012. And that's what we're going to study with this team that's coming over.

KELLY: That's an Air Force team coming to Iraq to think creatively about how to get the Iraqis fighter jets, perhaps by lending them older, American F-16s. That's one challenge of many on General Odierno's plate. Right now, his biggest is northern Iraq.

Gen. ODIERNO: We think that many of the insurgent groups are trying to exploit the current Arab tensions in the north. I think we've seen that a little bit in Nineveh, we've seen that a little bit in Kirkuk. And so what we watch very carefully is that this doesn't escalate and then would cause a significant amount of violence, which would then drive to some sort of increased ethnic violence between Arabs and the Kurds.

KELLY: Still, General Odierno says he's, quote, extremely pleased with how the handoff to Iraqi forces went this summer. And, he says, if Iraq can pull off successful elections next January, that momentum will be hard to reverse.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Camp Victory, Iraq.

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