US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki discussed plans Tuesday to leave US weapons behind after American troops leave, but Gates sidestepped media questions about whether any of his country's forces might stay beyond a planned 2012 departure date.
BAGHDAD — U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki discussed plans Tuesday to leave U.S. weapons behind after American troops leave, but Gates sidestepped media questions about whether any of his country's forces might stay beyond a planned 2012 departure date.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said al-Maliki and Gates talked about Iraqi concerns that the departing Americans leave behind a trove of weaponry and streamline payment arrangements for more U.S. arms.
"It was a positive meeting," al-Dabbagh said. "Gates talked about how serious the Americans are in arming the Iraqi army and providing them with weapons and equipment."
The Iraqi spokesman said he expected the U.S. will "facilitate payment installments in the arms purchasing process. The Americans will leave behind many weapons and other equipment."
Gates did not provide his own details about the arms discussions.
During his visit to Washington last week, al-Maliki suggested that if Iraq needs more security help it might ask for an extension of the U.S. military's commitment.
"What happens beyond 2011 is a subject best left to the end of 2010 or 2011 itself," Gates said, when asked by reporters.
Gates congratulated Iraqi security forces on the handover of security from U.S. to the Iraqis last month, a milestone in the U.S. plan to draw down troops and leave Iraq entirely by 2012. The two countries agreed on the timetable in lengthy and sometimes difficult negotiations last year.
Gates got a firsthand look at what he called the future of the U.S. military mission in Iraq on a visit to the southern Iraqi base at Talil.
U.S. and Iraqi soldiers operate together at the command post, a prototype for U.S. forces as they shift from front-line combat to support roles.
At the command post Gates asked for a status report from U.S. and Iraqi officers who have been patrolling together since July 15. A typical convoy was lined up before him in the hot sun: A beat-up Iraqi pickup truck in the lead, with American armored vehicles lined up behind.
Since the United States handed over control of Iraqi cities to Iraqi officers last month, U.S. soldiers need an Iraqi escort when they leave their own base.
"What you are doing here is the next phase of our progress in Iraq," Gates told U.S. troops.
Gates told reporters he was impressed by an artillery brigade that had come to Iraq in spring thinking it would be on the front lines but quickly adapted to its advisory role. "This is a symbol of how flexible our forces are," he said.
Iraqi and U.S. officials are still working out the kinks, but the Americans said they are pleased with the new arrangement, and Iraqi police officers sounded confident.
"If we need any support, we can ask," Lt. Anwar Gani said through an interpreter.
Later in Baghdad, Gates made a point of saying that the United States is "ready to help resolve disputes over boundaries and hydrocarbons," a reference to widening tensions between Arabs and Kurds.
Gates is expected to visit Iraq's restive Kurdish region, where challengers made a surprisingly strong showing in regional elections over the weekend.
Kurds were united in disputes with Iraq's Arabs over oil-rich territory, which threaten to erupt into new violence even as the U.S. military prepares to withdraw its forces by the end of 2011.
Official results from Saturday's vote for a regional president and 111-seat parliament were not expected until later this week.
But the opposition group called Gorran — Kurdish for "Change" — said early projections showed it had made major inroads in the parliament with a win in the city of Sulaimaniyah.
Last week, al-Maliki met in Washington with President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and senior lawmakers. Obama pressed al-Maliki to make room in his government and security forces for all ethnic and religious groups.
U.S. officials, while praising improvement in Iraqi security forces, remain deeply concerned that al-Maliki's Shiite Muslim-dominated government has been unable or unwilling to reconcile with the country's minority Sunni Muslims and Kurds.
The Sunnis had run Iraq until the U.S. ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and are still smarting over their loss of power in politics, the economy and military.
Associated Press staff writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra reported from Baghdad.