Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search), without advanced public notice, flew into northern Iraq early Saturday, landing in the heart of country's northern oil fields.

Rumsfeld's Air Force C-17 cargo plane flew here from Tblisi (search), Georgia, where he told that country's leaders that the United State supports Georgia's independence.

It was the second time in four months that Rumsfeld has visited Iraq, but his first to Kirkuk (search), the center of Iraq's northern oil industry.

The trip was kept under wraps to minimize the risk of attack by Iraqi insurgents. Officials said Rumsfeld wanted to gauge for himself the progress being made to stabilize the country.

On Friday in Tblisi, Rumsfeld told Georgia's leaders that the United States supports the former Soviet republic's independence and urged Russia to withdraw its troops as it promised to do four years ago.

At a news conference with the acting president, Nino Burdzhanadze, Rumsfeld also cautioned that a "credible election process" leading to a scheduled Jan. 4 vote for president is "critical to stability in Georgia."

Burdzhanadze, who was installed as interim president shortly before Eduard Shevardnadze was driven from power last month by protests over a fraud-tainted election, said the new leaders would maintain Georgia's push to become more integrated in the Euro-Atlantic alliance, of which the United States is the driving force.

Rumsfeld got a firsthand look at Georgia's latest steps in that direction. He visited a mostly dilapidated former Soviet military base outside Tblisi where U.S. marines are training Georgian soldiers tactics to fight terrorists. The $64 million program, which began in May 2002, is coming to a close, but Burdzhanadze said at the news conference that she hopes the U.S. military help will continue in some form.

The United States sees Georgia as an important partner in the Caucasus region of southwest Asia, in part because it stands in the path of a planned oil pipeline that would link the Caspian and Mediterranean seas. It also is at what some consider a crossroads for international terrorists and trafficking in weapons and drugs.

Georgia has publicly backed the Bush administration's fight against terror as well as the war in and occupation of Iraq.

"We have had good meetings with the president and certainly wanted to underscore America's very strong support for stability and security and the territorial integrity here in Georgia," Rumsfeld said. "The United States agrees that Russia should fulfill its commitment under the Istanbul Accords to withdraw Russian forces from Georgia."

Before beginning their closed meeting, Burdzhanadze thanked Rumsfeld for U.S. support "in a very difficult period of time for our country." The United States, she said, is a "real friend."

Referring to the toppling of Shevardnadze, she said, "We are proud our people showed we are ready for democracy, and we are ready to fight for democracy."

She said it was important to note that the ouster of the former government was accomplished without bloodshed.

Also in Rumsfeld's meeting with Burdzhanadze were two other key figures in the former opposition: Zurab Zhvaniya, now acting state minister, and Mikhail Saakashvili, considered the front-runner in the presidential contest. He has backing from all the parties that drove Shevardnadze from power.

Rumsfeld is the first member of President Bush's Cabinet to visit Georgia since Shevardnadze's resignation. His trip seemed intended as much as a signal to Russia as an assertion of American support for Georgia.

The Bush administration worries that Russia is moving more aggressively to assert its influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia, in ways that could impede movement toward democracy.

One irritant is Russia's failure so far to remove its troops from Georgia. A 1999 deal, known as the Istanbul Accords, specified removal of most Russian troops, and the Russians already have missed several tentative deadlines. The Russian government has said it needs a decade or more for complete withdrawal of its troops, not fast enough for the Georgians.