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While Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Iraq today, there was a significant bombing in Baghdad. At least 16 people were killed when a car bomb went off near a Shiite mosque. This is Gates' sixth visit since he became defense secretary. He's in Iraq to begin negotiations on the U.S. military's long-term presence in the country.
NPR's Guy Raz is traveling with the defense secretary.
GUY RAZ: Over the past two days, violence has followed the secretary. Yesterday, it was Kabul, where a car bomb exploded hours before his motorcade passed by. Today, it was Baghdad, the kind of spectacular suicide bombing in the capital that's lately become less common. Still, Gates professed optimism. And besides, it was only a distraction from his larger agenda here.
Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Department of Defense): The Maliki government recently took a critical step by signing with us a declaration of principles, which sets the stage for future U.S.-Iraqi cooperation.
RAZ: That declaration of principles is a document that sets out to redefine Iraq's relationship with the United States. The details are what Gates was here to start hammering out. The Pentagon has been vague, very vague, over how the nature of the relationship between Washington and Baghdad will change. So over the next six months, Washington and Baghdad intend to work out a long-term agreement that could establish a large-scale American presence here for decades.
A senior defense official describes it as a bulked-up version of what's called a Status of Forces Agreement known in Pentagon shorthand as SOFA. SOFA is what governs the U.S. military presence in places like Japan and Germany. But in those countries, the American military operates with the guidance and consent of Berlin and Tokyo. Defense Department officials concede the arrangement with Baghdad will be different.
One official says the military is looking for a, quote, "flexible" agreement that would allow U.S. troops to operate with relatively few operational restrictions. There may also be an economic component and understanding, so to speak, that would give U.S. corporations and investors preferential treatment. For now, the Pentagon is trying to figure out how to keep the violence in Iraq at a manageable level.
Mr. GATES: One of the main reasons for my visit to Iraq today was to find out how we can best work together, not only to sustain the momentum of recent months, but to build upon it.
RAZ: While Pentagon officials credit the U.S. military with bringing about a decrease in violence here over the past few months, some are quietly conceding that Iranian restraint may also be one of the reasons. One of the factors in the reduction of violence, said a senior official on condition of anonymity, may be an adjustment in support for Shiite militias by Iran.
Guy Raz, NPR News, Baghdad.
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