- The Washington Times - Friday, December 11, 2009

BAGHDAD | Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was in Iraq Thursday to meet with Iraqi officials amid a wave of bombings that have claimed 127 lives and rattled the country’s government. U.S. military leaders who greeted Mr. Gates defended the Iraqi security forces’ response to the attacks.

A Thursday night meeting between Mr. Gates and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was canceled after Mr. al-Maliki was summoned before Iraq’s Council of Representatives to discuss the bombings.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Mr. Gates hoped to meet early Friday morning with the prime minister. Mr. Gates did meet with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and offered U.S. help in dealing with the attack’s aftermath.

Mr. Morrell said Mr. Gates told the Iraqi, “The bombings are a tragic reminder it’s not over yet. There’s still work to be done.”

The second leg of Mr. Gates’ unannounced tour of two major U.S. war zones came as al Qaeda’s umbrella group in Iraq claimed responsibility Thursday for the strikes. The bombings wounded 500 people; the group warned of more to come.

Senior U.S. 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 Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq.

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

Gen. Jacoby said that security vulnerabilities in Baghdad had been exploited in Tuesday’s bombings and called it a “complicated” situation.

“There are some obvious gaps” in Iraq’s ability to defend itself, but “they’re committed to it,” he told reporters.

Gen. Jacoby and other U.S. officials said the attack was a sign that al Qaeda’s grip on the fractured nation was weakening. With fewer fighters, the Iraqi insurgent force has turned its focus from seizing territory to occasional high-profile suicide bombings aimed at destabilizing the government.

“I think it’s all about the election right now,” Gen. Jacoby said.

Regardless, 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 U.S. combat troops. The U.S. says 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 the Tuesday attacks came in a Web posting from the Islamic State of Iraq, which purports to speak for a range of insurgent factions linked to al Qaeda in Iraq. Its authenticity could not be independently verified.

The bombings prompted angry questions from Iraqi lawmakers, who grilled Mr. al-Maliki in a closed session of parliament.

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