Gates in Iraq visit

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates flew to Iraq today to meet Iraqi officials amid a wave of bombings which have killed 127 people and rattled the country’s government.

US military leaders who greeted Mr Gates defended the Iraqi security forces’ response to the attacks.

Mr Gates and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met for about 45 minutes this morning. US officials said the meeting was similar to one a day yesterday between Mr Gates and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, in which Mr Gates expressed his condolences for Tuesday’s bombing and offered any assistance Iraq might need.

The second leg of Mr Gates’ unannounced tour of two major US war zones came as al Qaida’s umbrella group in Iraq claimed responsibility yesterday for the strikes. The bombings injured 500 people, and the group warned of more to come.

Senior US military officials defended the Iraqi forces’ efforts even after Mr al-Maliki expressed his displeasure by dismissing his head of security operations.

“It would be tough for any country, any government to prevent these kinds of attacks,” said Lieutenant General Charles Jacoby, the number two US commander in Iraq.

Mr Gates was expected to press Iraq’s leaders for political progress between the Kurds and other ethnic groups.

The bombings have raised tough questions for Mr al-Maliki about the ability of Iraq’s security forces ahead of next year’s planned withdrawal of US combat troops.

The US said it plans to keep the bulk of its 120,000 forces in Iraq through the country’s March 7 elections to counter violence; but it plans to leave the country entirely by December 2011.

The claim of responsibility for Tuesday’s attacks came in an internet posting from the Islamic State of Iraq, which purports to speak for a range of insurgent factions linked to al Qaida in Iraq. Its authenticity could not be independently verified.

The bombings also raised questions about serious gaps in Iraqi security, prompting angry questions from Iraqi lawmakers, who grilled Mr al-Maliki in a closed session of parliament.

On Wednesday, Mr al-Makili pushed aside the military commander overseeing Baghdad security and moved the number two officer into the top spot.

Mr al-Maliki also claimed that feuding between political blocs, co-ordination problems between police and army and budget cuts because of falling oil prices have hobbled attempts to expand security operations.

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