Gates hails Iraq, warns against Iran, Qaeda
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Last Updated: Friday, April 08, 2011, 00:43
  
Baghdad: US Defence Secretary Robert Gates hailed on Thursday the "extraordinary" progress made in Iraq as an example for Middle East democracy, but warned that neighbouring Iran and extremist groups would try to exploit unrest sweeping the region.

Gates, who arrived in Baghdad yesterday evening, met with Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin, commander of US military forces in Iraq, before going into talks with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

At the Camp Liberty US base west of Baghdad, the Pentagon chief met with some of the nearly 50,000 US troops still in Iraq. That number is down from a peak of more than 170,000 after the US-led 2003 invasion to topple dictator Saddam Hussein and ahead of a planned full withdrawal in late 2011.

"To see Iraq today -- and when you look at the turbulences going across the entire region -- lots of these folks would be happy if they could get to where Iraq is today," Gates told reporters.

"It's not perfect but it's new and it's a democracy and people do have rights."

Since February, Iraq has seen its share of nationwide protests. But unlike the uprisings sweeping across the Arab world Iraqis have not been demanding regime change, just reform and better living conditions.

"What has been achieved here at huge sacrifice on the part of the Iraqis, on the part of our troops and on the part of the American people is really extraordinary," Gates said.

As recently as Saturday, two American soldiers in Iraq were killed by "indirect fire," the US military said. That raised the number of US casualties since the invasion to 4,443, according to the independent website www.icasualties.org.

Gates also warned that Iran and extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda would try to exploit Arab unrest.

He said it was "a concern that the internal security services of many Arab countries have turned to their internal problems rather than broader counter-terrorism."

"This is a period where extremists will probably try to take advantage -- including Iran. We must make sure these guys don't make a free ride."

Gates travelled from Saudi Arabia, where he sharply criticised Iran.

"We already have evidence that the Iranians are trying to exploit the situation in Bahrain and we also have evidence that they're talking about what they can do to create problems elsewhere," Gates said, referring to Shiite-led protests that were crushed by Bahrain's Sunni monarchy.

PTI


First Published: Friday, April 08, 2011, 00:43


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