Gates hails Iraq, warns against Iran, Qaeda

US defence secretary said unrest in Bahrain has created tensions in Iraq.

Updated: Apr 08, 2011, 00:43 AM IST

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