By Jim Wolf
Tue Jul 28, 7:19 am ET
TALLIL AIR BASE, Iraq (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates hailed security improvements in Iraq on Tuesday in a visit that will touch on possible arms sales as the two nations look toward the withdrawal of all U.S. forces.
Gates also will try to help bridge a deep divide between Iraq's ethnic Kurds and majority Arabs that many fear may undermine security gains, a senior U.S. Defense official said.
In his 10th visit to Iraq as U.S. Defense chief, Gates told U.S. troops at the Tallil air base, speaking in blistering 115 degree Fahrenheit (46 Celsius) heat, he was impressed by changes on the ground in Iraq.
He said Iraq's security situation was "amazingly different" to that of his first visit to Iraq in the job in December 2006, at the height of the sectarian bloodshed that has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis since the 2003 invasion.
Gates is to hold talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Defense Minister Abdel Qader Jassim.
One of the topics they are expected to discuss is Baghdad's interest in acquiring Lockheed Martin Corp's F-16 multirole fighter jets to counter possible threats from neighboring nations after U.S. forces leave.
Gates will visit the largely autonomous northern Kurdish region, which appears to be drifting farther from Arab leaders in Baghdad in an impasse over oil and disputed land.
Kurds vow to pursue their claims of areas such as oil-producing Kirkuk as they assert greater control of hydrocarbon reserves.
The United States wants to prevent any clashes that might play into the hands of diehard Sunni insurgents who would style themselves a bulwark against Kurdish encroachment.
Gates will hold talks with Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan region, which has signed oil deals with foreign firms that Iraqi Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani deems illegal.
"We're very much positioned now as kind of an honest broker," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
He said U.S. forces in northern Iraq were playing an important "confidence-building" role in disputes involving Kurdish security forces stationed outside Kurdistan.
"The Arab-Kurd dimension is probably the most pressing one at the moment in terms of the issues that really need to get dealt with to consolidate our security gains," he said.
Kurdistan held parliamentary and presidential polls this weekend that, despite an unprecedented opposition challenge, were not expected to oust the influential ruling powers.
ARMS SALES, NORMALISING TIES
Gates hopes to build on talks between Maliki and U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington seeking what both countries have called "more normal" ties as U.S. forces stand down.
Part of this is the billions of dollars Iraq is expected to spend on arms. Baghdad wanted to buy an initial squadron of 18 F-16s this year, with a goal to acquire as many as 96 through 2020, Lieutenant General Anwar Ahmed, head of the Iraqi Air Force, told Reuters in March, citing fears of Iran and Syria.
"We think it's a good idea that they go with a multi-role fighter -- that it be ours," the U.S. official said.
"We think that it's also in Iraq's interest to buy their weapons from as few suppliers as possible, because you're talking about logistics, maintenance, interoperability."
The U.S. Congress has already been told of potential arms sales to Iraq worth some $9 billion, including General Dynamics Corp's M1A1 tank, armed helicopters from either Boeing Co or Textron Inc, and Lockheed's C-130J cargo plane.
France, China and Russia are among countries that have sold Iraq arms in the past. Qader told U.S. Defense officials at a Pentagon meeting last week that Iraq had conversations with "other folks" about multirole fighters, the U.S. official said.
Gates arrived in Iraq after visits to Israel and Jordan.
The United States plans to withdraw all combat forces from Iraq in August 2010, and combat troops already withdrew from urban bases at the end of last month.
From another article
(RTTNews) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, touring the Middle East as part of a major American diplomatic push in pursuit of a comprehensive peace deal, arrived Tuesday in Iraq on an unannounced visit.