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U.S. defense secretary says in visit to Baghdad that secure and stable Iraq is within reach

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    BAGHDAD — U.S. military commanders in northern Iraq told Defense Secretary Robert Gates here Wednesday that they need more troops to battle increased attacks by al-Qaida terrorists who have fled north after being pushed out of the Baghdad region.
    The call for the movement of Iraqi and U.S. forces into the north comes as Gates hailed the improved security in Baghdad and said a stable Iraq is within reach. Just before Gates spoke in the heavily fortified Green Zone, however, a car bomb exploded across the Tigris River in a largely Shiite Baghdad neighborhood killing at least 14 people, according to police.
    Up in Mosul, Army Col. Tony Thomas, deputy commander of U.S. forces in the north, told reporters traveling with Gates that commanders would like additional U.S. troops, as well as the return of 1,400 Iraqi troops who were sent to Baghdad as part of the military buildup there earlier this year. The plan could shift extra troops from other areas of the country that are more secure.
    Thomas would not say how many troops are needed or where they would be deployed, but he said the U.S. needs ‘‘more combat power’’ to help stabilize a number of areas — including Diyala province, Mosul and Samara — to help counter an uptick in violence, including suicide bombings. He said military leaders are still discussing the issue, and have made no final decisions.
    Gates, who met with commanders in Mosul before heading to Baghdad for talks with Iraqi leaders, acknowledged the new challenges in the north.
    ‘‘What I heard them say was that they ... did need some additional forces,’’ said Gates, who appeared at a press briefing with Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi, ‘‘particularly west of the river.’’ He said that as military operations in Baghdad pushed al-Qaida north, there was a ‘‘resulting increase in terrorist activities in Mosul and surrounding areas as al-Qaida tried to establish a new foothold.’’
    Gates, who is using his latest unannounced trip to Iraq to assess whether the downturn in violence in parts of the country can be sustained, also said he believes a stable Iraq is within reach.
    ‘‘In many parts of the nation, the positive developments have led to a growing sense of normalcy and hope,’’ said Gates.
    Making his sixth visit to Iraq in the last year, Gates acknowledged the precarious nature of any security gains in the country. And he said much work remains to be done to ensure Iraqi forces are ready to take over more military duties from U.S. troops. Iraqis who have been fighting insurgents on the local level must be integrated into Iraqi security forces, for example, he said.
    ‘‘I believe that a secure, stable Iraq is within reach,’’ Gates said. However, he added, ‘‘We need to be patient.’’
    Overall, there has been a steady decline in violence in Iraq in recent months, including dips in roadside bombs, other attacks and in both U.S. and Iraqi casualties. The U.S. is pressing Iraqi leaders to take advantage of the improved security to make the political reforms needed to stabilize the fledgling democracy.
    U.S. brigade commanders who met with Gates, then later talked to reporters, dismissed the deadly Wednesday car bombing in Baghdad’s Karradah neighborhood as desperate extremists trying to make a statement. And they reeled off statistics in their areas of responsibility showing steep declines in attacks.
    ‘‘The soldiers feel it, they’re excited ... one (roadside bomb) is to me an act of desperation,’’ said Col. Jon S. Lehr. He said that when he first arrived in Iraq, he was seeing 553 attacks a month, and noted there were just 49 in November.
    The Pentagon has been careful not to declare victory yet in Iraq.
    Al-Obeidi, the defense minister, said he and Gates discussed requirements to better prepare the Iraqi Army. He said they are ‘‘working very hard’’ to accomplish all the goals for 2007, including training and equipping the Iraqi armed forces as well as building a strong system of command and control.
    Gates also met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who assured him that Iraqi forces have reached an advanced level of training and proven their capabilities in confronting terrorism and criminals.
    And al-Maliki affirmed that the Iraqi government wants to push through legislation that will have a positive effect on the life of Iraqis and to secure their stake in the national wealth — including oil and gas, for which the government has approved a draft resolution that guarantees fair distribution of wealth.
    Gates is also using this Iraq trip to assess whether Iran is working to quell the shipment of arms into Iraq.
    The U.S. military has said on numerous occasions that deadly roadside bomb material has been traced to Iranian suppliers, and suggested that it would be highly unlikely for them to be acting without Tehran’s knowledge or tacit approval.
    Associated Press Writer Hamid Ahmed in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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