updated 8/2/2007 3:17:09 PM ET 2007-08-02T19:17:09

U.S. officials underestimated how difficult it would be for the Iraqi government to pass political reforms, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday, adding that the “depth of mistrust” among the factions is greater than anticipated.

Talking to reporters on board his plane as he returned from a four-day swing through the Middle East, Gates said he is more optimistic about improvements in security in the wartorn nation than he is about getting legislation passed by the bitterly divided government.

“In some ways we probably all underestimated the depth of the mistrust and how difficult it would be for these guys to come together on legislation,” Gates said. “The kinds of legislation they’re talking about will establish the framework of Iraq for the future so it’s almost like our constitutional convention. ... And the difficulty in coming to grips with those, we may all have underestimated six or eight months ago.”

Gates’ comments came a day after six Sunni Cabinet ministers from the Iraqi Accordance Front quit in protest over what they said was Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s failure to respond to a set of demands. Just two Sunnis remain in the 40-member Cabinet, and Maliki Thursday was working to get the six to reconsider.

The Bush administration ordered a build-up of U.S. forces in Iraq — adding about 30,000 troops for a total of nearly 160,000 — to quell the violence so the government could stabilize and take hold. That would then allow the U.S. to begin the much-demanded withdrawal of troops.

'Optimistic on the security side'
On Thursday Gates said the political developments are “somewhat discouraging at the national level,” but he hopes it can be patched back together.

Meanwhile, he said security is improving.

“I am optimistic on the security side because of what I see in al-Anbar, and what we’re seeing in some of the other provinces where we’re getting some cooperation,” he said.

Military commanders have attributed the decline in violence in Anbar to successful efforts working with local tribal leaders who grew sick of the insurgency-spawned bloodshed and turned their backs on al-Qaida. As a result, the military has been trying to duplicate those efforts in other parts of the country.

Such developments at the local level, Gates said, are “more encouraging than I would have expected three or four months ago.”

The key, he added, will be efforts — largely by the Iraq Army and police — to maintain the security.

'Not really room for bystanders'
Gates, who was returning from meetings with Middle East leaders in a rare joint lobbying effort with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, also had harsh words for Iran.

“We can’t wait years for them to try to change their policies. The more countries in the world that cooperate in the U.N. sanctions and in bringing pressures to bear on this government, that its policies are antithetical to the interests of all its neighbors, the better off we’ll be,” he said.

Both he and Rice urged Middle East allies to press on with financial sanctions against Iran. “There’s not really room for bystanders here,” he said, adding that the Arab leaders are unanimous in their concern about Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Gates and Rice traveled to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where they urged Arab countries to offer greater support for Iraq, including debt relief and efforts to slow the flow of foreign fighters across the borders into the war.

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