BAGHDAD - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday that a stable and democratic Iraq was "within reach." But he cautioned that threats remain, pointing to insurgent efforts to create a stronghold in northern Iraq as U.S. commanders seek more than 1,400 additional Iraqi and U.S. troops there.

Gates, who during Senate confirmation hearings a year ago stated that the United States was neither winning nor losing in Iraq, was unusually upbeat in his remarks. He said several recent trends have given him hope, including the lowest levels of violence since early 2006, a substantial increase in the number of displaced Iraqis returning to their homeland, rising international investments, and the willingness of more than 70,000 Iraqis to volunteer to protect their neighborhoods.

"More than ever, I believe that the goal of a secure, stable and democratic Iraq is within reach," Gates said at a news conference in the fortified Green Zone. "We need to be patient, but we also need to be absolutely resolved in our desire to see the nascent signs of hope across Iraq expand and flourish."

In a reminder that security remains tenuous, a series of car and roadside bombs exploded across Iraq yesterday, killing at least 28 people and wounding 69.

The deadliest attack occurred at 5 p.m. in Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood, considered one of the safer enclaves in the capital, when a car bomb exploded. The blast, across the Tigris River from the Green Zone, killed 18 people and injured 33, police said.

A car bombing in the northern city of Mosul killed one civilian and injured seven at 9:15 a.m., shortly before Gates landed there on the first leg of his Iraq visit. The U.S. military also reported the deaths of two U.S. soldiers in Salahuddin province, north of Baghdad.

The Mosul bombing underscored what Gates said was a rise in attacks in the northern section of the country, which stretches from Baghdad north to the Syrian and Turkish borders, and east to Iran.

Army Col. Tony Thomas, deputy commander for northern Iraq, told reporters traveling with Gates that his command had asked for more U.S. troops and the return of two Iraqi battalions from Baghdad, a total of about 1,400 troops. The additional forces are needed to help stabilize the north, including the cities of Mosul, Samarra and Baiji as well as Diyala province, which, he said, "continues to be a center for the insurgency."

At the Pentagon, meanwhile, the top Marine general told reporters yesterday that he has set aside his proposal to shift Marine forces from Iraq to Afghanistan, reflecting Gates' opposition to it.

"After discussion with the secretary and with my colleagues on the Joint Staff, there is a determination that right now, the timing is not right to provide additional Marine forces to Afghanistan," said Gen. James T. Conway, the Marine Corps commandant.

Blackwater Pact

A new agreement

between the Pentagon and the State Department gives the military in Iraq more control over Blackwater Worldwide and other private security contractors.

The agreement,

signed yesterday, spells out rules, standards and guidelines for the use

of private security contractors.

It also says

contractors will be accountable for criminal acts under U.S. law. That partly clarifies what happens if a contractor breaks the law, but it leaves the details to be worked

out with Congress.

One of the chief

features of the new accord is

a provision giving the main U.S. military command in Iraq more information on ground and air movements of private security contractors.

-

Associated Press

This article contains information from the Associated Press.