BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates met Iraqi leaders on Saturday to tell them Washington was disappointed with their efforts to reconcile warring factions.
Gates, who flew into Baghdad Friday night, was briefed by U.S. commanders on a U.S. troop build-up intended to buy time for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shi'ite-led government to reach a political accommodation with Sunni Arabs.
There were few details of Gates' meeting with Maliki and other Iraqi leaders but Gates told reporters travelling with him he would deliver a simple message "that our troops are buying them time to pursue reconciliation, that frankly we are disappointed with the progress so far."
General David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said troops had launched offensives against Sunni Islamist al Qaeda hideouts around Baghdad in the past 24 hours to hunt car-bombers.
"For the first time we are really going to a couple of the key areas in the belts from which al Qaeda has sallied forth with car bombs, additional fighters and so forth," he said.
The U.S. military has completed its troop build-up in Iraq to 160,000 soldiers. Nearly 28,000 additional troops have been sent to Iraq, mainly to Baghdad for a major crackdown on sectarian violence.
"We are ahead in some areas and behind in others," Petraeus said of the four-month-old crackdown. He has previously said the success of the operation could not be judged until all the reinforcements were fully operational.
Gates' visit and criticism were signs Washington is growing increasingly frustrated with what U.S. officials regards as foot-dragging on laws on distributing oil revenues, control of regional oil fields and holding provincial elections.
Newsweek quoted Maliki as saying in an interview on Friday that his government rejected pressure and considered timetables harmful.
"The word 'pressure' and timetables, they do not help and they are not a good principle for political relations," Maliki said in the interview posted on the Newsweek Web site.
Iraq's main political blocs have so far shown a reluctance to compromise on any of the key issues blocking reconciliation. Shi'ites and Sunni Arabs are also locked in a cycle of violence that many fear is pushing the country toward all-out civil war.
The second bombing of the revered Shi'ite al-Askari mosque in Samarra this week has alarmed U.S. officials, who fear it could derail reconciliation efforts and trigger a repeat of the wave of violence that was unleashed by the first attack in February 2006, killing tens of thousands.
A four-day curfew in Baghdad has largely kept a lid on retaliatory attacks in the capital, although a number of Sunni mosques have been torched or blown up elsewhere. In the latest attack, a Sunni mosque in the southern Shi'ite city of Basra was leveled in an explosion Saturday, police said.
Maliki said Iraqi security forces were in control of the country's streets after the "painful" Samarra bombing.
The government had signed an agreement with UNESCO to rebuild the famed mosque, he added.
On his last visit in April, Gates explicitly tied political progress to the U.S. troop build-up. Petraeus and U.S. envoy Ryan Crocker are due to report in September on the success of the new strategy and make recommendations on how to proceed.
The U.S. military said troops found the identity cards of two U.S. soldiers missing for nearly a month during a raid on an al Qaeda safe house north of Baghdad.
The cards were shown in an al Qaeda Web video posted on June 4 in which the group said it had killed the two soldiers. The U.S. military said no one was found in the house.
The cards belonged to Specialist Alex Jimenez and Private Byron Fouty. Jimenez and Fouty were abducted along with a third soldier, whose body has since been found, after an attack on their patrol in Yusufiya south of Baghdad on May 12.