BAGHDAD, Iraq (Reuters) - The U.S. defense secretary on Tuesday praised Iraqi forces as they take control from the U.S. military, pledging U.S. support to help Iraq end the political feuds that threaten its fragile security.
Robert Gates, in Iraq on a previously unannounced visit, met U.S. troops at a sun-baked air base and held talks with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders in Baghdad.
Eight people were killed as Gates visited the Iraqi capital by a bomb near a popular cinema and market.
"(U.S. commander in Iraq General Ray) Odierno and I are confident that Iraqi troops are up to the challenges of securing these urban areas and soon their entire nation, but we stand ready to assist if called upon," Gates said, less than a month after U.S. combat troops withdrew from town and city centers.
"We are also willing to assist in resolving disputes over boundaries and hydrocarbons, disputes that require continued commitment to the political process by word and deed," he said in a news conference with Iraq's defense minister.
Gates' comments reflect western concerns that Iraq's next major security threat may come from entrenched political feuds between Kurds and Arabs rather than insurgents or militias.
Gates is due to visit the largely autonomous northern Kurdish region and to meet Kurdish President Masoud Barzani.
"The Arab-Kurd dimension is probably the most pressing one at the moment in terms of the issues that really need to get dealt with to consolidate our security gains," a senior U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.
Kurdistan held parliamentary and presidential polls this weekend that, despite an unprecedented opposition challenge, were not expected to oust the ruling powers.
Gates gave high marks to Iraqi forces following the June 30 deadline for pulling U.S. combat troops out of city bases. "Less than a month into it, I'm really heartened," he said.
The withdrawal, a milestone in plans to pull out all U.S. troops from Iraq by 2012, was a chance for Iraq to reassert sovereignty more than six years after the U.S.-led invasion.
But it raised fears among some Iraqis that untested local forces, rebuilt from the ground up since 2003 and still lacking in equipment and advanced skills, would not be able to keep Iraq from sliding back into greater bloodshed.
Iraq in mid-2009 is a far cry from the dark days of 2006-07, when hundreds of people a day were killed in massive suicide bombs and sectarian executions were routine. But insurgents are active in ethnically mixed areas in northern and central Iraq.
As Gates met Iraqi leaders in Baghdad, hundreds of supporters of anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr protested the U.S. presence in Iraq, waving Iraqi flags and pictures of the firebrand cleric, shouting "No, no to America."
As Iraq looks beyond 2011, it is expected to spend billions of dollars on arms needed to defend itself on its own.
Baghdad has expressed interest in Lockheed Martin Corp's F-16 multirole fighter jets and officials have spoken of wanting to buy an initial squadron of 18 F-16s this year, with a goal to acquire as many as 96 through 2020.
But Defense Minister Abdel Qader Jassim, speaking alongside Gates, said Iraq had "many alternatives" and that Iraq would make a decision based solely on aircraft features.
"We must get war planes we can use to protect our airspace by the end of 2011," he said. France, China and Russia are among countries that have sold Iraq arms in the past.
Speaking later to reporters, Odierno said he did not think Iraq would be ready to secure its airspace by 2012 on its own. He said a U.S. Air Force assessment team would help Iraq look at options and that Washington was considering "creative solutions" like the possibility of lending Iraq fighter jets.
The U.S. Congress has already been told of potential arms sales to Iraq worth some $9 billion, including General Dynamics Corp's M1A1 tank, armed helicopters from either Boeing Co or Textron Inc, and Lockheed's C-130J cargo plane.