COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Monday he had seen no signs that recent violence in southern Iraq would affect a planned drawdown of U.S. troops.
The violence erupted after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki launched a crackdown on Shi’ite militias in the city of Basra last week, prompting clashes across the south and in Baghdad.
Calm returned to Basra on Monday after cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his fighters off the streets but analysts have said an underlying rift remains within Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim majority and is likely to trigger more violence in future.
Gates, speaking as he flew to Copenhagen for meetings with Danish leaders, praised Maliki for taking on crime and corruption in the Basra area, which is responsible for about 80 percent of Iraq’s oil output.
“We’ve all known at some point that the situation in Basra was going to have to be dealt with,” Gates told reporters.
“It is the economic lifeline of the country and to have it under the control of a bunch of thugs and gangs and militias over the long term was unacceptable,” he said.
The United States is in the process of withdrawing some 20,000 extra combat troops ordered into Iraq last year by President George W. Bush to curb violence.
U.S. commanders say they expect to have 140,000 troops in Iraq once that drawdown is completed in July.
“I have not heard or seen anything that would indicate a need to change the plan at this point,” Gates said.
He said U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, would be able to give a fuller picture of his plans when he reports to the U.S. Congress next week.
Gates said he did not believe Maliki was using government forces for political ends — to crush Sadr’s movement and his Mehdi Army militia before provincial elections in October — as some analysts and Sadr supporters have suggested.
“I don’t think that that’s the case,” Gates said.
Earlier on Monday, Gates visited NATO’s military headquarters near Mons, Belgium, for briefings from senior officers on the war in Afghanistan and other topics ahead of an alliance summit in the Romanian capital Bucharest this week.
In Copenhagen, Gates plans to thank Denmark for strongly supporting the United States in military missions, including in Afghanistan, where there are some 550 Danish combat troops.
One Danish soldier was killed and two were wounded in a battle with Taliban insurgents in southern Afghanistan on Monday, the Danish Army said.
“The Danes have played an important and tough role in Afghanistan,” Gates said. “This is an ally that in my opinion is really punching above its weight and I wanted to visit and basically thank them for that.”
Editing by Mary Gabriel