| GEO World|
US defense secretary makes surprise visit to Iraq
| Updated at: 1113 PST, Wednesday, September 01, 2010|
AL-ASSAD US AIRFORCE BASE: US Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived on a surprise visit to Iraq early Wednesday, as the US Army officially ended its combat mission there, a French news agency journalist said.
Gates was scheduled to attend the change of command ceremony for the head of US forces in Iraq.
General Ray Odierno, the top US commander in Iraq since taking over from General David Petraeus in 2008 is stepping down to be replaced by Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin.
President Barack Obama late Tuesday officially announced the end of the US combat mission in Iraq. US forces are now down to less than 50,000 with only an advisory and training mission left.
"Tonight, I am announcing that the American combat mission in Iraq has ended," Obama said, seated in the same spot as former president George W. Bush when he unleashed the US war machine more than seven years ago.
"Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country," Obama said in the 18-minute address marking the transition of the US mission in Iraq.
Gates for his part said in a speech in the Midwestern state of Wisconsin on Tuesday that it was too early for victory parades in Iraq.
"I am not saying that all is, or will necessarily be, well in Iraq," he said.
"The most recent elections have yet to result in a coalition government. Sectarian tensions remain a fact of life. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is beaten, but not gone," he warned.
"This is not a time for premature victory parades or self-congratulation," Gates said, adding "we still have a job to do and responsibilities there."