AMMAN, Jordan (AP) _ The resignations of six Iraqi cabinet ministers loyal to a radical cleric could help the reconciliation process there, depending on who is appointed to replace them, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday.
Gates, who is traveling in the Middle East, also said he does not yet know whether the departure of the six officials tied to Muqtada al-Sadr will increase the violence by Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.
``I think the impact ... that these resignations have will depend, in some measure on who is selected to replace these ministers and their capabilities, and whether those vacancies are used in a way that can perhaps further advance the reconciliation process,'' said Gates. ``There is the opportunity to turn what might seem like a negative potentially into a positive development.''
Noting that the six ministers are remaining as members of the council of representatives and therefore not walking away from the process, Gates said it is still not clear what Sadr's motives are for the split.
``In the intelligence business we divided all the information that we wanted to know into two categories _ secrets and mysteries,'' said Gates, a former director of the CIA. ``I think that his motives right now, at least for me, are a mystery not a secret.''
Gates said that broadening the representation in the cabinet of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's could help advance the reconciliation process.
Sadr has said the reason for the resignations is the lack of a timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq _ a move that Gates and the Bush administration have opposed.
But Gates again said Tuesday that the ongoing push for a timetable by the Democratically-controlled Congress has been helpful in showing the Iraqis that American patience is limited.
``I've been pretty clear that I think the enactment of specific deadlines would be a bad mistake. but I think the debate itself, and I think the strong feelings expressed in the Congress about the timetable ...probably has had a positive impact _ at least I hope it has in terms of communicating to the Iraqis that this is not an open-ended commitment,'' he said.
Gates spoke to reporters Tuesday after he met with Jordan's King Abdullah II during the first stop of his Middle East trip. Gates is urging U.S. allies in the Middle East to work more closely with the Iraqis in an effort to bolster Maliki's fragile government.
The Iraqis are under growing pressure to move more quickly on political reconciliation, so that they can temper the divisive sectarianism and tamp down the violence gripping the country. The U.S. needs to shift more responsibility for Iraq security to the Iraqis in order to begin withdrawing American forces.
Gates, who is making his third visit to the Middle East since taking over as defense chief last December, is also expected to meet this week with leaders in Israel and Egypt.
The U.S. military, meanwhile, is increasing its presence in Iraq as part of the buildup ordered by Bush to try and quell the violence in Baghdad so that the Iraqi government can begin to stand on its own.
Three of the five additional brigades planned for the buildup are in Iraq, with the remaining two scheduled to be there by early June. Congress and the White House, however, are at an impasse over whether to set deadlines for troop withdrawals.