US Defence Secretary Robert Gates made a surprise visit to Iraq amid concerns that more sectarian violence could erupt after this week's bombing of a sacred Shia mosque.
Gates went to Iraq on Friday from a meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Brussels. He pressed Iraqi leaders for political reconciliation needed to create a country "in which all of the different elements can live in peace with one another".
"I think that possibility is still open," the US Defence Department's American Forces Press Service quoted Gates as saying.
US and Iraqi officials blamed Al-Qaeda for Wednesday's bombing of the Shia mosque in Samarra, saying the group wanted to spark another large-scale sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunnis.
Since then, bombers have been attacking revered Sunni mosques to retaliate. A first bombing of the Samarra mosque in February 2006 provoked widespread sectarian killing that brought Iraq to the brink of full-blown civil war.