ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT, June 30, 2009 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today he’s heartened that al-Qaida hasn’t been able to reignite sectarian violence in Iraq despite its acts of violence leading up to today’s deadline for U.S. troops to leave Iraqi cities.

Commanders on the ground anticipated for weeks that al-Qaida and other extremists would take advantage of the U.S. troops’ compliance with the U.S.-Iraq status of forces agreement to launch attacks, Gates told reporters returning to Washington with him after a change-of-command ceremony at U.S. European Command headquarters in Germany. While capitalizing on what they perceive as a security void, al-Qaida operatives likely want to increase violence to make it appear that they were the ones driving U.S. combat troops out of the cities, Gates said.

Another likely objective, he said, is to “try and demonstrate deficiencies of the Iraqi security forces.”

Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, also expected that al-Qaida and other extremists would try to take advantage of the situation to fuel division among Iraq’s sects, the secretary said.

Gates expressed relief that Odierno’s prediction never materialized. “Even after these high-profile bombings that took a lot of casualties, sectarian violence has not reignited,” he said. “And I think his view is that most Iraqis are sick and tired of violence.”

The security situation varies widely in Iraq as U.S. combat troops turn security responsibility within the cities over to Iraqi security forces, Gates said. Fallujah, Ramadi, Basra and Kirkuk have been “pretty quiet,” while “Mosul was in a middle of a fight when the deadline came,” he said. Meanwhile, Baghdad has suffered high-profile suicide attacks.

Gates said he expects sporadic fighting to continue in Iraq. But overall, he said, he’s “struck by General Odierno’s overall positive view of the way things have developed and the way forward.”

Some U.S. combat troops remain in urban areas, embedded with Iraqi security forces or providing other support. Most others posted outside the cities are providing support to Iraqis now taking the security lead, “continuing the partnership that has been developing,” Gates said.

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ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT, June 30, 2009 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said…