KIRKUK, Iraq– The U.S. military role remains critical to preserving gains made in Iraq and helping to prevent sectarian violence in the roll-up to Iraq’s national elections, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told about 300 soldiers and airmen at a town hall session today at Forward Operating Base Warrior.

“Whether you are just rotating in, or rotating out, you may have noticed that this theater has largely disappeared from the headlines,” Gates said, calling it the result of tremendous contributions U.S. servicemembers have made.

“That doesn’t mean that this theater is not important,” Gates told the group, a mix of soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division’s 2nd Brigade and 1st Armored Division’s 1st Brigade, and and airmen from the 506th Air Expeditionary Group. “Your mission here is still critical to preserving the gains of recent years.”

Gates noted that Forward Operating Base Warrior, a former Iraqi military facility just west of Kirkuk, stands at a fault line between Iraq’s Arab-led central government and the self-ruled Kurdish region in the north. The secretary called this rift “perhaps the most worrisome issue here in Iraq,” and said the military role here will be increasingly important in keeping it in check during and immediately after the March 7 elections.

“Your role here in fostering cooperation here is essential in ensuring a credible election and transfer of power,” he told the group.

Gates emphasized the importance of resolving Arab-Kurd tensions throughout his two-day visit here, in meetings yesterday with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and the Iraqi Presidency Council, and earlier today with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. After his visit to Warrior today, Gates traveled to Irbil to deliver the same message to Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government President Massaoud Barzani.

Despite concerns, Gates told the troops, he’s impressed by signs of progress during the past 18 months on both sides of the issue. “I think there is no question that the Kurds see their future as part of a unified Iraq,” he said. “What is at issue is the terms on which that goes forward. That is negotiable.”

That progress has accelerated in recent weeks, he said, passing much of the credit to Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, and the U.S. Embassy Baghdad staff, who are promoting dialog between Kurds and central Iraqi government.

Both Barzani and Maliki have asked Odierno for help in brokering a security architecture to resolve the frictions, Army Lt. Gen. Charles H. Jacoby Jr., commander of Multinational Corps Iraq, told reporters traveling with Defense Gates during a media roundtable yesterday. That effort, still in the works, aims to “establish an environment where there is trust and confidence and security, to allow a peaceful election and a secure environment for political dialog to continue,” Jacoby said.

“We are working toward that, and we are making progress,” he said. “It is not a done deal yet. But I will tell you the act of interest and trust by those two leaders has led to greater cooperation within the disputed internal boundaries amongst all parties. … Every side is committed to one thing, and that is the security of the Iraqi people.”

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KIRKUK, Iraq– The U.S. military role remains critical to preserving gains made in Iraq…