BAGHDAD — Defense Secretary Robert Gates made a surprise visit Friday, as the military announced the deaths of five U.S. soldiers and a day after extremists fired shells into Baghdad’s Green Zone during a visit by the State Department’s No. 2 official.
Friday also saw the crash of a F-16 fighter jet, the first such loss in more than six months. An Air Force statement said the crash was an accident, but did not say where the plane went down or what happened to the pilot.
Gates expressed support for the top U.S. commander here, saying the military wasn’t trying to paint an overly optimistic picture of how the war is going.
“It’s a very mixed picture,” Gates told reporters on his plane when asked whether the military and Gen. David Petraeus were offering realistic assessments of the violence in Baghdad, where the number of U.S. troops has been increased over the past few months.
“I have every confidence in General Petraeus and in his ability and willingness to call it as he sees it,” Gates said.
Gates arrived in Baghdad late Friday night to meet with U.S. military and Iraqi political leaders. This is his fourth trip to the country since taking over as defense chief in December; his most recent stop here was in April.
The additional five U.S. combat brigades that make up the recent U.S. troop buildup are now all in Iraq, as part of an increased effort to stabilize the violence in Baghdad. Gates’ visit came as Iraqi officials ordered a citywide security crackdown after the bombing Wednesday that toppled the two minarets of the Askariya mosque about 60 miles north of Baghdad.
Petraeus was criticized this week by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who accused the top U.S. commander in Iraq and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, of failing to provide Congress a candid assessment of the Iraq war.
The criticism comes just a week after lawmakers told Gates they would challenge Pace if he were nominated for a second two-year term as chairman, and so Gates decided to replace him.
The United States has sent around 28,000 extra troops to Iraq for a fresh security push launched in mid-February aimed at curbing sectarian killing and winning the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s time for political reform.
“Everyone is here on the ground now. But obviously, the troops that have just got here are going to take some time to integrate into their battle space and get to know their counterparts,” U.S. military spokesman Lt.-Col. Christopher Garver said.
A Baghdad-wide clampdown continued Friday, with a curfew still in place two days after suspected al-Qaida bombers blew the minarets off a sacred Shiite shrine and stoked fears of a bloody sectarian backlash.
At least four Sunni mosques were attacked within hours of the Shiite shrine blasts in Samarra on Wednesday, and police in Basra reported four people killed in retaliatory violence there.
On Thursday, a barrage of rockets and mortars included one that hit on a street close to the Iraqi parliament less than a half hour before Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte passed nearby.
The attack again showed militants’ resilience — including their ability to strike the heavily protected zone — despite a U.S.-led security crackdown across the city that began four months ago. But officials paid much closer attention to any signs that Shiites could unleash another wave of retaliation against Sunnis for the explosions at the Askariya mosque compound in Samarra.
The first attack on the site in February 2006 sent the country into a tailspin of sectarian violence that destroyed Washington’s hopes of a steady withdrawal from Iraq. On Wednesday, bombers toppled the two minarets that stood over the ruins of the mosque’s famous Golden Dome about 60 miles north of Baghdad.
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