Image: Defense Secretary Gates talks to troops in Iraq
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U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates speaks to soldiers in Kirkuk, Iraq, on Friday.
updated 12/11/2009 6:42:24 AM ET 2009-12-11T11:42:24

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told American troops Friday in this oil-rich northern city that their mission in Iraq remains critical despite the nation's focus on Afghanistan and that plans are on track to reduce forces next year.

In a town hall meeting, Gates spoke with about 300 soldiers and airmen gathered outside on a sunny day at an airbase.

Gates also said plans to drawdown forces there after Iraq's March elections remain intact. When asked whether political turmoil might threaten that timeline, Gates said he didn't think so because all indications were that Iraqi leaders were tired of war and wanted a unified Iraq.

On Afghanistan, he predicted a 'tough fight' but that the security situation would improve as more troops arrive.

Iran risks sanctions
The secretary also predicted significant international sanctions would be levied if Iran continued with its current nuclear program, and he reiterated that all options, including military action, must stay on the table.

"I think that you are going to see some significant additional sanctions imposed by the international community," Gates said, adding that "any military action would only buy some time, maybe two or three years."

His comments came a day after United States, Britain and France warned that Iran risks increased sanctions unless it immediately complies with a series of Security Council resolutions regarding its nuclear program.

The town hall meeting came hours after Gates and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met in Baghdad for about 45 minutes on Friday morning. U.S. officials said the meeting was similar to one a day earlier between Gates and Iraqi President Jalal Talibani, in which Gates expressed his condolences for a wave of bombings that have claimed 127 lives and rattled the country's government , and offered any assistance Iraq might need.

'Tough for any country'
The third leg of Gates' unannounced tour of two major U.S. war zones came as al-Qaida's umbrella group in Iraq claimed responsibility Thursday for the strikes. The bombings wounded 500 people; the group warned of more to come.

Senior U.S. military officials defended the Iraqi forces' efforts even after al-Maliki expressed his displeasure by dismissing his head of security operations.

"It would be tough for any country, any government to prevent these kinds of attacks," said Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq.

Jacoby and other U.S. officials said the attack was a sign that al-Qaida's grip on the fractured nation was weakening. With fewer fighters, the Iraqi insurgent force has turned its focus from seizing territory to occasional high-profile suicide bombings aimed at destabilizing the government.

"I think it's all about the election right now," Jacoby said.

Regardless, the bombings have raised tough questions for al-Maliki about the ability of Iraq's security forces ahead of next year's planned withdrawal of U.S. combat troops. The U.S. says it plans to keep the bulk of its 120,000 forces in Iraq through the country's March 7 elections to counter violence; but it plans to leave the country entirely by December 2011.

The claim of responsibility for the Tuesday attacks came in a Web posting from the Islamic State of Iraq, which purports to speak for a range of insurgent factions linked to al-Qaida in Iraq. Its authenticity could not be independently verified.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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