U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has predicted U.S. troops will be out of Iraqi cities and populated regions by the end of June -- the deadline set for their withdrawal from urban areas.
Gates, who arrived on Saturday in Iraq, told U.S. troops at a military base in Balad, north of Baghdad that their mission is in its "end game." He said by the end of June, U.S. forces will have turned over all of Iraq's 18 provinces to provincial Iraqi control. He noted Iraqi forces will gradually take on more of the security responsibilities. However, the top U.S. commander in Iraq said earlier today U.S. forces will remain in Iraqi cities beyond the June deadline. General Ray Odierno said troops will stay on to advise and train Iraqi security forces with a goal of keeping peace in Iraq's cities.
The new U.S.-Iraq security agreement, which Iraq's parliament approved last month, calls for U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraqi cities by June 30th. The agreement, which takes effect on January first, would have all U.S. troops out of Iraq by 2011. It also gives Iraq strict oversight of some 150-thousand U.S. forces in the country. Gates traveled to Iraq from Bahrain, where he accused Iran of trying to destabilize Iraq and the whole region. He called on Gulf states to support the U.S.-backed government in Iraq as the best way to counter Iran's influence.
In other news, Turkish officials say a military plane has evacuated 14 Iraqis wounded in a suicide attack Thursday in Kirkuk, for treatment in Turkey. The blast killed at least 55 people and wounded more than 100 others.