"We've talked with the Iraqis about the best path forward in terms of improving the security situation here in Baghdad.

"And I think we have a broad strategic agreement between the Iraqi military, and the Iraqi government and our military."

 

More US deaths

 

In other news, US military sources on Friday announced the deaths of five US soldiers from combat wounds in western Iraq and Baghdad.

 

One US soldier died and another was wounded on Friday when their patrol came under fire, and three marines and one US sailor died during combat in western Anbar province.

 

At least 2,964 American troops have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003.

 

In December, 76 American troops have been killed. The number of US combat deaths this month could meet or exceed the previous monthly record for 2006 at the current rate.

 

New strategy?

 

George Bush, the US president, is considering whether to send thousands of additional US troops to the country to control the violence. 

 

President Bush has said he will announce a new strategy in January after listening to the advice of his military commanders, State Department officials, Iraqi leaders and Gates, who said he would report back to the president this weekend.

 

While in Iraq, Gates met US commanders

In recent months, many of those advising the White House, including Tony Blair, the British prime minister, and the Iraq Study Group, have suggested that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the real key to peace in the region.

 

The UK has around 7,100 troops in southern Iraq, mostly stationed in and around Basra, and hopes to pull out thousands of troops in 2007 although British military officials say that is dependent on security conditions on the ground.

 

Meanwhile, Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, has said Iraq should be seen as the focus of US policy in the Middle East.

 

On Thursday, she said: "There have been plenty of markers that show that this is a country that is worth the investment, because once it emerges as a country that is a stabilising factor, you will have a very different kind of Middle East".