Gates said he would deliver a simple message "that our troops are buying them time to pursue reconciliation, that frankly we are disappointed with the progress so far".

 

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Meanwhile, General David Petraeus, the US military commander in Iraq, said troops had launched offensives against al-Qaeda in Iraq's hideouts around Baghdad in the past 24 hours to hunt car-bombers.

 

He said: "For the first time we are really going to a couple of the key areas in the belts from which al-Qaeda has sallied forth with car bombs, additional fighters and so forth."

 

The US military has completed its troop build-up in Iraq to 160,000 soldiers. Nearly 28,000 additional troops have been sent to Iraq, mainly to Baghdad for a major crackdown on sectarian violence.

 

US frustration

 

Gates' visit and criticism were signs Washington is growing increasingly frustrated with what US officials regards as foot-dragging on laws on distributing oil revenues, control of regional oil fields and holding provincial elections.


But Newsweek quoted the Iraqi prime minister as saying in an interview on Friday that his government rejected pressure and considered timetables harmful.

 

Gates visited a joint US-Iraqi security station
in Baghdad on Saturday [AFP]

"The word 'pressure' and timetables, they do not help and they are not a good principle for political relations," al-Maliki said in the interview posted on the US magazine's website.

 

He said Iraqi security forces were in control of the country's streets after the "painful" Samarra bombing and that this government had signed an agreement with Unesco to rebuild the famed mosque.

 

The second bombing of the revered Shia al-Askari mosque has alarmed US officials, who fear it could trigger a repeat of the wave of violence that was unleashed by the first attack in February 2006, killing tens of thousands.

 

Lid on violence

 

A four-day curfew in Baghdad has largely kept a lid on retaliatory attacks in the capital, although a number of Sunni mosques have been torched or blown up elsewhere.

 

In the latest attack, on Saturday a Sunni mosque in the southern Shia city of Basra was levelled in an explosion, police said.

 

The remains of 13 members of an
Iraq taekwondo team [AFP]

Also on Saturday, police and hospital officials said the remains of 13 members of an Iraqi taekwondo team kidnapped last year had been found in western Iraq.

 

The team had been driving to a training camp in Jordan in May 2006 when their convoy was stopped and all 15 athletes were abducted along a road between the cities of Falluja and Ramadi, in Anbar province.

 

The fate of the other two members was not known.

 

In another development, the US military said troops found the identity cards of two US soldiers missing for nearly a month during a raid on an al-Qaeda safehouse north of Baghdad.

 

The cards were shown in an al-Qaeda web video posted on June 4 in which the group said it had killed the two soldiers.

 

The US military said no one was found in the house.

 

The cards belonged to Specialist Alex Jimenez and Private Byron Fouty.

 

Jimenez and Fouty were abducted along with a third soldier, whose body has since been found, after an attack on their patrol in Yusufiya, south of Baghdad, on May 12.