Gates criticizes failure to reconcile

From combined dispatches

BAGHDAD — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday Washington was disappointed with the Iraqi government’s efforts to pass laws aimed at reconciling the country’s warring factions.

Mr. Gates flew into Baghdad for an unannounced visit to assess a U.S. troop buildup intended to buy leaders of Iraq’s ethnic and religious groups more time to reach a political accommodation and press the government to move faster in passing the laws.

His comments were some of the strongest criticism of the Iraqi government, although he took care to stress that Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki faced “enormous obstacles” and deserved Washington’s continued support.

The U.S. military yesterday announced the deaths of four soldiers on Thursday, and one on Wednesday.

A U.S. F-16 fighter jet crashed yesterday during a close air support mission for ground forces in Iraq. An Air Force announcement, which referred to the 12:27 a.m. crash as an accident, did not say where it occurred or what happened to the pilot, the single crew member.

An Ohio National Guard spokesman said the pilot, whom he did not identify, was a member of the 180th Fighter Wing based in Toledo. Spokesman Mark Wayda said about 270 of the unit’s 1,000 members were deployed to Iraq last month. The jet was operating under the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing at Balad Air Base, 50 miles north of Baghdad.

An F-16 last crashed on Nov. 27 in the western province of Anbar, killing the pilot.

Three of the U.S. soldiers, whose deaths were reported yesterday by the military, died when a bomb exploded near their vehicle Thursday during operations in Kirkuk province, in northern Iraq. Another soldier was wounded in the blast.

A fourth soldier was killed by small-arms fire the same day in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad. And another soldier died Wednesday in a noncombat-related incident.

In the deep south of Iraq, police said bombers posing as television cameramen destroyed an important Sunni shrine, and Mr. al-Maliki ordered an indefinite curfew in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city.

The attack on the Talha Bin al-Zubair shrine, 13 miles outside Basra, appeared to be the work of Shi’ite militants who were seeking revenge for Wednesday’s provocative attack on the al-Askariya Shi’ite shrine that brought down its golden minarets in Samarra, 50 miles north of the capital.

Mr. Gates is the third senior U.S. official to visit Baghdad this week, following in the footsteps of the top U.S. military officer in the Middle East, Adm. William Fallon, and Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte.

He said he would reiterate their message to Mr. al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders — speed up passage through parliament of legislation that includes laws on distributing oil revenue, control of regional oil fields and holding provincial elections.

“It is the same message that I have been delivering since December, that our troops are buying them time to pursue reconciliation, that frankly we are disappointed with the progress so far,” Mr. Gates told journalists traveling with him.

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