US affirms it won't threaten stability as it departs, Iraqi says
BAGHDAD - Vice President-elect Joe Biden assured Iraq's prime minister yesterday that the incoming administration will not withdraw US troops in a way that threatens stability, an Iraqi spokesman said.
Biden later traveled to one of the major threats to that stability - the northern city of Kirkuk. He urged rival Arabs, Kurds, and Turkomans to make concessions to resolve peacefully their competing claims to the oil-rich city.
US officials issued no statement about Biden's meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, on the second and final day of his visit to Iraq.
However, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh quoted Biden as saying that President-elect Barack Obama is committed to withdrawing from Iraq in a manner that does not endanger the security gains of the last year.
"He said that Obama is committed to withdraw but he wants the withdrawal to be a responsible one. Obama does not want to waste the security gains that have been achieved," al-Dabbagh said.
Obama pledged during his presidential campaign to remove all American combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office, shifting the focus to Afghanistan to combat a resurgent Taliban and Al Qaeda-linked militants.
Since the November election, however, the United States and Iraq have signed a new security agreement that provides for all the more than 140,000 US troops to leave by 2012, despite concerns among senior US commanders that Iraqi forces might not be ready by then to ensure stability.
Obama has pledged to consult with US commanders and the Iraqi government before deciding on a withdrawal schedule.
Although violence has declined sharply in Iraq, the US military has warned that security gains are fragile and that extremists are likely to step up attacks ahead of this month's provincial elections.
US commanders have also cautioned against removing troops too quickly.
During his visit, Biden also urged cooperation among the country's religious and ethnic groups, the spokesman said. He repeated those themes during a meeting in Kirkuk with representatives of the rival ethnic groups there.
Behind closed doors, Biden said the United States was spending billions of dollars - some of it in Kirkuk - which could be used to help alleviate the global financial meltdown, according to Ribwar Faiq Talabani, a local official who attended the session.
Biden insisted that the Iraqis solve their disputes through concessions and compromise.
But Kurdish representatives repeated their demand that Kirkuk be incorporated into their self-ruled region, and the Arabs insisted the city remain under central government control. Turkomans representatives suggested Kirkuk become its own self-governing region, Talabani said.
Iraq's parliament decided to postpone provincial elections in the Kirkuk area because the ethnic groups could not agree on a power-sharing arrangement.
Biden and Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, arrived in Iraq on Monday after visits to Pakistan and Afghanistan. They stopped first in the southern city of Basra to discuss security and reconstruction.