U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday that plans are on track to reduce American forces in Iraq next year and warned that neighboring Iran risks sanctions soon if it fails to cooperate on its controversial nuclear program.
At a town hall meeting with about 300 soldiers and airmen at the Kirkuk airbase, Gates was asked whether political turmoil might threaten plans to send more American troops home after Iraq's March elections. He said all indications are that Iraqi leaders were tired of war and wanted a unified country.
The secretary also said significant international sanctions would be levied if Iran continues with its current nuclear program, and added 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. He cautioned that "any military action would only buy some time, maybe two or three years."
Gates said Iran's provocations were bringing together the international community, including Russia and China, which have long been reluctant to punish Tehran but are now showing more willingness to confront the regime over its nuclear program. Iran insists its program is for civilian energy purposes.
The secretary also told troops that Afghanistan will be a "tough fight" but that the security situation would improve as more troops arrive.
Before departing Iraq Friday, Gates met with Massoud Barzani, president of the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan in the area's capital, Irbil. Barzani recently lifted his objections to Iraq's elections law. U.S. officials say the political agreement is critical to keeping the U.S. troop withdrawal schedule on track.
Earlier, Gates met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad for about 45 minutes. 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.
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 March 7 elections, but plans to leave the country entirely by December 2011.
U.S. officials are nervous that following the nation's March elections Iraqi officials will drag their heels in forming a unified government, as they did in 2005 when insurgents tried to exploit the temporary leadership vaccuum and destabilize the government.
Associated Press Writer Maamoun Youssef in Cairo and Sinan Salaheddin and Chelsea J. Carter in Baghdad contributed to this report.