ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
It's been almost a month since U.S. combat troops pulled out of Iraqi cities. Iraqi forces are now in charge in Baghdad and elsewhere. And today Defense Secretary Robert Gates flew in to see for himself how the new arrangement is working. The secretary says so far, so good.
Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): I think three and a half weeks into this process, no one could've expected it to go any better.
SIEGEL: NPR's Mary Louise Kelly is traveling with the secretary of defense and she's on the line now from Camp Victory in Iraq. Mary Louise, it sounds like from what Secretary Gates had to say, that the handoff to the Iraqis, at least according to the U.S., has gone well.
MARY LOUISE KELLY: That's certainly the sense that U.S. commanders have. I mean, Secretary Gates was saying today his sense is that things are a lot more equal now, that nobody is the boss, nobody is the occupier anymore, that Iraqis seem to feel much more empowered, now that this hand off has occurred. So, they are really, you know, the goal now is trying to figure out how you get U.S. forces to make this shift into frontline combat roles.
And we were taken today, for example, at Tallil Airbase, which is in southern Iraq, to see this new joint operation center. They just opened it up this month after the handoff. And the idea is you've got this big room, you've got Iraqis sitting on one side and everything on their side is in Arabic. The maps are all in Arabic. You have the Americans sitting on the other side. Everything is, of course, in English. But the idea is they are all at least in the same room. So that, at this point, is progress.
SIEGEL: But for all of the reports of progress and good news, we hear about more violence, more car bombs. Have Iraqi forces really been able to step up to the job that the U.S. has stepped back from?
KELLY: It's still obviously an open question and of course the violence is ongoing. We were told from General Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander here in Iraq, that this month's overall incidents are apparently down. Casualties for U.S. troops are down. So the indicators are going in the right direction. But yes, everyone we've talked to today, Iraqi and American, will tell you that there is a lot to get done between now and the end of 2011. And the end of 2011, of course, is when all U.S. troops are supposed to be out of Iraq.
SIEGEL: In the past, Secretary Gates has expressed his personal view that troops might be needed - U.S. troops might be needed there beyond 2011. Did he weigh in on that subject today?
KELLY: He did. And the official line is still that the security agreement that has been signed between the U.S. and Iraq says U.S. troops will be out at the end of 2011, and Secretary Gates says we will abide by that one. But for all that, it is still a very open question. I asked about this at a press conference today here in Baghdad. And interestingly, neither Secretary Gates nor the Iraqi defense minister would rule out that U.S. troops may well still be in Iraq past 2011.
SIEGEL: Just quickly, Mary Louise, there's been a lot of concern recently about tensions between Kurds in the north of Iraq and Iraq's Sunni Arabs. Did that come up today?
KELLY: It did. Both U.S. officials and Iraqi officials will tell you that is now the primary security concern here in Iraq. And that's very much going to be on the agenda tomorrow. Secretary Gates flies out from Baghdad. He's heading up north to Erbil. He's going to be meeting with the newly reelected Kurdish regional government president, President Barzani.
He's going to be delivering the message: We're here to support you in every way we can, but the clock is ticking. U.S. forces are in Iraq for a finite period to help ensure security. And he would like to see some progress made in resolving some of these tensions.
SIEGEL: Thank you, Mary Louise.
KELLY: You're welcome, Robert.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reporting there from Camp Victory in Iraq.
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