Biden makes surprise visit to Iraq on eve of U.S. troop withdrawal

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 29, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Vice President Joe Biden arrived Tuesday in Iraq for a surprise visit aimed at touting the administration's promise to end the war, and also to thank U.S. and Iraqi troops — and to start talks on a "new phase" in U.S.-Iraqi relations.

The White House cast Biden's unannounced visit — just over two weeks before the last U.S. forces are scheduled to leave the country — as a chance to highlight President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign promise to wind down the war in Iraq.

The administration said Biden would "commemorate the sacrifices and accomplishments of U.S. and Iraqi troops" as well as meet with Iraqi officials as the U.S. begins a "new phase" of cooperation with the country on a wide range of issues.

It's Biden's eighth visit to Iraq since becoming vice president.

"It's good to be back for this purpose," said Biden. At the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, which was decorated for Christmas, he met with Ambassador James F. Jeffrey and Gen. Lloyd Austin, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. Biden, who was last in Iraq in January, noted that Austin kidded him that he's now eligible for Iraqi citizenship.

White House spokesman Jay Carney called Biden's visit the fulfillment of a promise "where we are withdrawing the remaining U.S. forces from Iraq and we are ending that war responsibly and giving the Iraqi people the chance for a better future that they deserve and also maintaining an important strategic relationship with Iraq."

While there, Biden will co-chair a meeting of the U.S.-Iraq Higher Coordinating Committee and meet with Iraqi leaders, including Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, President Jalal Talabani and Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi.

Republicans on the campaign trail and in Congress have criticized Obama for withdrawing all U.S. troops from Iraq and failing to secure an agreement with Maliki to keep some U.S. forces in the country to help assure that it remains relatively stable. A sticking point for the administration was the Iraqi government's refusal to give U.S. troops immunity from prosecution. Maliki is scheduled to meet with Obama at the White House on Dec. 12.

Analysts noted that the withdrawal of U.S. forces doesn't end American involvement in Iraq, given its considerable oil resources and location: next to Iran.

"The timing is not so much dictated by the fact we're going to leave at the end of the year, but the fact that we do not have anything like the civil or military relationship we'd hoped to build a year ago," said Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right think tank. "We need to see if we can find a better relationship and one that will do a better job of containing Iran and trying to bring political and security stability to the country."

Cordesman said he didn't expect any dramatic breakthrough from Biden's visit, but he said that with senior Iranian officials visiting Iraq, and Iraqi officials visiting Iran, "the last thing on Earth you want to do is leave a power vacuum in this area."

"We can say in a way that the war has ended, but our relationship with Iraq hasn't," Cordesman said.

The U.S. ended its combat mission in Iraq on Aug. 31, 2010, and drew down to fewer than 50,000 troops from about 144,000 in January 2009. The administration maintains that violence in Iraq has remained at its lowest level since 2003, though some analysts fear a resurgence of violence after U.S. troops withdraw.

In a statement, the White House said that Obama and Maliki "agreed that it was in the best interests of both the United States and Iraq to draw down U.S. forces by the end of 2011 and embark on a new phase in our relationship — a long-term strategic partnership across a range of sectors."

The statement said that as part of a U.S.-Iraq agreement, the two countries are "deepening our cooperation on politics and diplomacy; trade and finance; energy; services, technology, the environment, and transportation; law enforcement and the judiciary; and defense and security."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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