U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says there is a chance the United
States may speed up the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.
Speaking after a two-day visit to Iraq, Gates said security conditions are improving in the country and there is a chance for a modest acceleration of the U.S. troop withdrawal.
All U.S. troops are due to pull out of Iraq by the end of 2011, and combat troops left Iraqi cities last month.
On Wednesday, Gates met with the president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region, Massoud Barzani, in its administrative hub, Irbil, to discuss resolving tensions between Iraq's ethnic Kurds and majority Arabs.
The two groups have been at odds over how to divide up Iraq's land and oil fields.
Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters Gates urged Mr. Barzani to use American assistance to negotiate a settlement.
He said Gates told Mr. Barzani that all sides had spent "too much in blood and treasure" since the 2003 U.S. invasion to risk losing it now.
On Tuesday, Gates met in Baghdad with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Iraq's Defense Minister, Abd al Qadir Mohammed Jassem, to discuss the future of American troops in the country and arms sales to Iraq.
Gates also met with the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno.
Gates said he and General Odierno are confident Iraqi troops are up to the challenge of securing urban areas, and eventually, the entire country, but that the U.S. stands ready to assist if called on.
Violence in Iraq has dropped sharply during the past year, but attacks increased in the weeks leading up to and following the June 30 withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq's cities