Page last updated at 15:53 GMT, Tuesday, 28 July 2009 16:53 UK

US praises Iraq's security gains

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates meets troops in Iraq, 28 July
The US defence secretary was making an unannounced visit

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has said on a visit to Iraq that its security situation has improved "amazingly" in the past three years.

He was in the country to see how US troops are adapting to their new non-combat role since withdrawing from all urban areas at the end of June.

All American troops are due to leave Iraq by 2011.

As Mr Gates visited Iraq, a top US envoy was in Jerusalem trying to revive the Arab-Israeli peace process.

Nobody's the boss or the occupier
Robert Gates
US Defence Secretary

Mr Gates met troops at a base in the south before travelling to the capital Baghdad, where he had talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

Iraq today is a very different place but it is not a peaceful one, and attacks still daily plague many towns and cities, the BBC's Gabriel Gatehouse reports from Baghdad.

US forces continue to patrol in some urban areas, albeit under Iraqi supervision, he says, but the Pentagon would prefer its troops to focus on training and supporting Iraqi forces.

Future disputes?

US troops withdrew from towns and cities in Iraq on 30 June, six years after the invasion, formally handing over security duties to Iraq's own forces.

BBC map

US-led combat operations are due to end by September 2010 with the troop withdrawal completed by the end of 2011.

At a news conference after his talks in Baghdad, Mr Gates side-stepped a question about whether some US forces might stay on beyond a 2011 deadline for withdrawal.

The issue, he said, was best left until the end of 2010 or even 2011.

Mr Gates said the US was ready to help resolve disputes over boundaries and hydrocarbons, in a reference to tensions between Arabs and Kurds.

The US defence secretary is also due to visit Iraq's Kurdish region, where the two communities have been at odds over oil resources.

The Americans want to make sure that fighting does not start in that region as soon as they leave, our correspondent reports.

A potential deal to sell F-16 fighter jets to Baghdad had been expected to feature at Mr Gates's talks in Baghdad, but no details were given.

'Flexible' deployment

Sectarian violence was raging in Iraq when Mr Gates made his first visit as defence secretary in December 2006.

Security was now "amazingly different", he told troops assembled at the Tallil air base, near the city of Nasiriya, where he began his visit on Tuesday.

US troops there are serving mainly as advisers to Iraqi forces.

Mr Gates said he was impressed by a US artillery brigade which had come to Iraq in the spring thinking it would be on the front lines, but quickly adapted to an advisory role.

"This is a symbol of how flexible our forces are," he said.

He visited Tallil's command centre, where US and Iraqi commanders meet each morning to go over co-ordination of patrols.

Describing relations between US and Iraqi forces, he said: "Nobody's the boss or the occupier."

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell had talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Tuesday.

Despite reports of "good progress" at the meeting, there was no mention of Israel agreeing to halt settlement construction - a key US demand.

President Barack Obama's National Security Adviser, James Jones, is expected shortly in Israel leading a team which includes veteran diplomat Dennis Ross.

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