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Amid drawdown of troops, Biden reassures Iraqis

Visits Baghdad to mark end of US combat role

A PUSH FOR POWER-SHARING Vice President Joe Biden will urge Iraqi leaders Nouri al-Maliki and Ayad Allawi to form a new government. A PUSH FOR POWER-SHARING
Vice President Joe Biden will urge Iraqi leaders Nouri al-Maliki and Ayad Allawi to form a new government.
By Leila Fadel
Washington Post / August 31, 2010

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BAGHDAD — Vice President Joe Biden is in Iraq to help end an impasse over who will run the country and to reassure Iraqis that the United States is not abandoning them despite the official end of US combat operations today.

Biden’s visit, his fifth since becoming vice president, was being made as the US military fulfills an Obama administration pledge to drop to 50,000 troops in Iraq by Sept. 1. Already, troop levels have declined to just under 50,000, from more than 140,000 at the beginning of 2009.

Many Iraqis say they are concerned that the US withdrawal is premature because of the political stalemate that has continued for nearly six months since national parliamentary elections, as well as an increase in violence across the country.

“We’re going to be just fine. They’re going to be just fine,’’ Biden said during a brief photo session at the US Embassy after his arrival yesterday. He was joined by Ambassador James F. Jeffrey and top US generals overseeing Iraq and the rest of the Middle East.

Tomorrow, Biden will preside over a ceremony in which General Ray Odierno will end more than five years as commander of American forces in Iraq and hand over the reins to Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin. Austin also has served extensively in Iraq, most recently as commander of troop operations in 2008-09.

In addition to commemorating the change of mission in Iraq, Biden will meet with Iraqi leaders and urge them to form a government at this “critical time,’’ said his national security adviser, Antony Blinken.

The incumbent prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, is battling with Ayad Allawi, a secular Shi’ite whose coalition won a slim lead in the March elections, for the chance to form a new government. Biden will meet with Maliki and Allawi, along with other Iraqi officials.

US officials have said it is crucial for Iraq to form a government now. They have urged Allawi and Maliki to forge a power-sharing agreement, but both leaders have said they are determined to be prime minister.

Blinken said that, so far, the lack of a new government has not created the security vacuum many feared. But Iraq cannot move forward on major issues or build partnerships with foreign countries, including the United States, he said.

“It’s hard to build a partnership if you don’t have a partner,’’ Blinken said. He reaffirmed that the United States was on track to fully withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011 as stipulated in a security agreement between Iraq and the United States, but said it is increasing its commitment to Iraq in other ways.

US Embassy officials were on alert yesterday for possible rocket attacks and advised to wear protective gear when walking outside on the fortified embassy compound.

The bloodshed is substantially less than during the worst days of the civil war between 2005 and 2007. But with no new government in sight, many worry that Iraq’s security forces will be unable to contain a surge in violence.

Jeffrey warned in a briefing to reporters last week that “the potential for violence . . . is quite significant.’’

“The ability of terrorist acts to have an impact on the political life of this country is still a significant risk,’’ he said, noting that so far it had not had such an effect. “It is something we and the Iraqis watch.’’

Last week, Maliki put the nation on high alert after coordinated bombings across the country killed at least 60 people. He warned that intelligence showed more attacks to exploit the political uncertainty were possible.

The ceremony tomorrow marking the change of command in Iraq is the start of “Operation New Dawn,’’ symbolizing the beginning of the end of the American military’s mission here.

Now the American military will take a backseat to the US State Department’s efforts to help Iraq’s security, economy, and government stand alone as all US troops leave by the end of 2011. After that, officials said, the United States will continue to assist Iraq in what Blinken called “a long-term partnership.’’

The US Embassy in the heavily fortified Green Zone was briefly put on lockdown shortly before Biden’s arrival yesterday because of incoming fire detected by radar. Hours later, about 10:30 p.m., five Katyusha rockets hit the Green Zone, but there were no immediate reports of casualties.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

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