AMMAN, Jordan – U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is urging U.S. allies in the Middle East this week to help bolster the fragile Iraqi government, which is under growing pressure to take over more of its own security from U.S. forces.
Gates is expected to meet with political and military leaders in Jordan, and then travel to Israel and Egypt. He said he last visited Jordan about 20 years ago.
"Jordan has been a strong ally of the United States and I look forward to discussing with the king about how we can contribute to his efforts and how the Jordanians can contribute to ours," Gates told reporters Monday on the plane en route to Jordan. "Not just in Iraq, but Lebanon and the Israel-Palestinian peace process."
The Bush administration would like to offset the Iranian influence in Iraq as well.
Previewing discussions Gates will have with regional leaders this week, a senior military official said the U.S. believes that the "most important way to mitigate Iranian pressure" against the Iraqi government is for Mideast allies to support the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and involve it more directly in the political discourse of the region.
Gates' visit comes as violence spiked in Iraq in recent days, raising doubts about the progress of the U.S. military buildup. Meanwhile, members of Congress and the White House are at an impasse over whether to set deadlines for troop withdrawals. Three of the five brigades ordered into the country by President Bush to help quell the violence in Baghdad have arrived in Iraq.
Shortly after he arrived in Amman, Gates toured the King Hussein Ben Talal Mosque, the largest mosque in the country. Gates walked through the praying areas inside the four-minaret mosque, with its vaulted ceilings, carved Jordanian stone and rare wood, and commented that the structure was beautiful.
Al-Maliki's government suffered another setback Monday as Cabinet ministers loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr resigned to protest the Iraqi leadership's refusal to respond to demands for a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal. The departure of the six ministers deals a significant blow to the U.S.-backed leader, who relied on support from the Sadrists to gain office.
In Washington, White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said that al-Sadr's decision to pull out his ministers does not mean that al-Maliki loses his majority. "I'd remind you that Iraq's system of government is a parliamentary democracy and it's different from our system. So coalitions and those types of parliamentary democracies can come and go," she said.
Asked about the progress in Iraq, the senior defense official traveling with Gates said that the pace of reconciliation there must move more quickly, despite the daily hurdles.
"We've gotten all the right signals from the Iraqi and Maliki governments," said the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record. "But they are going to have to quicken the pace. The patience of the Iraqi people as well as the American people is not indefinite."
Gates this week also will be looking for leaders in the region to continue their stance that Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons is unacceptable, as is Iran's continued support to the Hezbollah guerrilla army in Lebanon, said the official, who was traveling with Gates but not authorized to speak on the record. Iran's Revolutionary Guards Quds Force is suspected of arming the Hezbollah.
Several Mideast countries have said they plan to pursue nuclear energy, a development seen as aimed at countering Iran's own disputed nuclear ambitions. Jordan's King Abdullah in January publicly announced for the first time that he wanted to develop Jordan's nuclear capabilities for peaceful purposes, and Washington indicated it had no objection to a peaceful nuclear program.
Key U.S. allies — Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia — have expressed concerns over Iran's nuclear ambitions and the growing Shiite Muslim influence in the region. They worry that the Shiite influence is boosting the hardline Tehran regime and giving rise to more extremism, while jeopardizing Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and threatening their own states.
Discussions in each of the countries is likely to also focus on their military needs and what weapons and training they want from the United States, said the defense official.
Gates also plans to urge countries such as Egypt and Israel to modernize their defense systems and "transition from the post-Soviet dependency on conventional weaponry to something more ... related toward counterterrorism and the non-state actors that we are all working together against in the region."
Weapons sales in the region are sensitive, because each country worries their own security could be threatened by U.S. sales to their neighbors.
The Jordanians staff a field hospital in Iraq with about 200 people and one in Afghanistan, with about 370 people. They have also trained between 40,000 and 50,000 Iraqi police officers.