Vice President Joe Biden landed in Baghdad on Monday to mark the official end of the US combat mission in Iraq and to urge the conflict-torn country’s squabbling leaders to end a political impasse.
Biden arrived in the capital one day before a speech by President Barack Obama will signal the end of the American military’s combat operations after seven years of fighting, which have seen more than 4,400 US soldiers killed.
The vice president’s three-day visit also comes as politicians wrestle with political animosities that have seen no new government formed since a general election almost six months ago ended in deadlock, causing alarm in Washington.
“We’ll be just fine, they’ll be just fine,” Biden said after his arrival in brief remarks to reporters when asked about security concerns in Iraq in the wake of a major drawdown of US forces in recent months.
The troop reduction has coincided with a surge in car bombings and shootings that has targeted the Iraqi forces who have steadily taken on security responsibilities from the Americans since 2009.
The latest violence has seen hundreds of people killed, including a high number of Iraqi police, but the United States has steadfastly continued to pull troops out of the country, with fewer than 50,000 now based in Iraq.
Although the unrest is not on the same scale as in 2006-2007 when sectarian conflict raged alongside the anti-US insurgency, about 300 people have been killed monthly this year, and July was the deadliest month since May 2008.
Obama declared shortly after taking office last year that the US combat mission in Iraq would end on August 31, 2010, after which American troops would take on a training and advisory role prior to a complete withdrawal in 2011.
“On Tuesday, after more than seven years, the United States of America will end its combat mission in Iraq and take an important step forward in responsibly ending the Iraq war,” Obama said on Saturday in his weekly radio address.
Biden, Obama’s point man on Iraq, is to meet President Jalal Talabani, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the former premier and recent election winner Iyad Allawi during his trip, the White House said.
The vice president will also take part in a ceremony on Wednesday to mark the US military’s change of mission here.
US seeks long-term relationship with Iraq
Tony Blinken, Biden’s national security adviser, said the vice president would use meetings with Iraqi political leaders “to preview” Obama’s speech, which will be delivered from the Oval Office on Tuesday night.
“Even as we draw down our troops we are ramping up our engagement across the board — diplomatic, political, economic… we are determined to build a long-term relationship with the government of Iraq,” Blinken added.
There are now 49,700 American soldiers in Iraq, less than a third of the peak figure of almost 170,000 during the US “surge” of 2007, during the throes of brutal Shiite-Sunni violence that cost tens of thousands of lives.
The outgoing commander of US forces in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, has said the new force strength will be maintained “through next summer” before troop numbers fall towards zero by the end of December 2011 withdrawal deadline.
However, a rise in bloodshed — 535 people were killed in July — has raised doubts about Iraq’s ability to defend itself against insurgents.
The country’s top army officer, Lieutenant General Babaker Zebari, warned on August 11 that a complete withdrawal of US troops at the end of next year would be premature, and urged a change of tack from the country’s politicians.
“If I were asked about the withdrawal, I would say to politicians: the US army must stay until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020,” Zebari told AFP.
Biden last visited Iraq in July when he urged its squabbling politicians to resolve their differences and form a government, but there was no breakthrough.
Incumbent premier Maliki was narrowly defeated by Allawi in the March 7 election, but the vote was shared between an array of rival blocs forcing both men to look for coalition partners.
Neither Maliki, a Shiite who heads the State of Law Alliance, nor Allawi, also Shiite but leader of a broadly secular coalition with strong Sunni Arab backing, has managed to secure a majority in the 325-seat parliament.
Odierno told the New York Times on Monday that failure to form a new government could undermine Iraqis’ faith in democratic rule.
“The longer that takes, the more frustrated they might get with the process itself,” he said.