U.S. Could End Engagement in Iraq if Violence Erupts, Biden Warns

By Nada Bakri
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 4, 2009

BAGHDAD, July 3 -- Vice President Biden warned Iraqi officials Friday that the American commitment to Iraq could end if the country again descended into ethnic and sectarian violence.

Biden delivered the warning during a three-day visit to Iraq that began Thursday, just a few days after the United States formally withdrew most combat troops from Iraqi cities under a security agreement reached last year. It was the vice president's first visit since President Obama asked him to take the lead on Iraq policy.

In meetings with senior Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Biden stressed that the United States would remain engaged in Iraq, even as its military role diminishes in a withdrawal that is expected to dramatically gather pace after parliamentary elections in January.

But a senior administration official briefing journalists said Biden made that support contingent on Iraqi progress in resolving long-standing conflicts, some that bedeviled Iraq even before the United States invaded in March 2003.

If "Iraq were to revert to sectarian violence or engage in ethnic violence, then that's not something that would make it likely that we would remain engaged because, one, the American people would have no interest in doing that, and, as he put it, neither would he nor the president," the official said.

He added that there "wasn't any appetite to put Humpty Dumpty back together again if, by the action of people in Iraq, it fell apart."

The warning was a dramatic indication of the changing U.S. posture in Iraq, the foremost foreign policy concern of the Bush administration. The statements suggested that the Obama administration would absolve itself of responsibility if Iraq again descended into chaos, dragged down by still-unresolved crises. They include border disputes between Kurds and Arabs and also legislation for Iraq's oil resources.

Across Iraq, signs are rife of a diminishing U.S. role. Simply by virtue of the presence of 130,000 U.S. troops, the United States is sure to exercise decisive influence. But the power it once wielded inside Baghdad has passed. Along with last month's pullout -- and a far larger one due to end by August 2010 -- staffing at the U.S. Embassy will be reduced over the year as well.

Even the interaction of officials seems to have changed. Early Friday, Biden's aides huddled with advisers to Ayad al-Samarraie, the speaker of Iraq's parliament, trying to figure out a time the two men could meet.

An aide to Samarraie told the vice president's staff that the speaker had no more than 30 minutes to spare for the meeting. "That is the best I can do," the aide said in a conversation overheard at a presidential palace, as workers vainly tried to clean the aftermath of a sandstorm that has buffeted Baghdad for almost a week.

Some lawmakers were irritated by the secretive nature of Biden's visit.

"They have to treat Iraq as a sovereign country," lawmaker Mahmoud Othman said. "They should have let us know, and they should be welcomed like any other leader."

During the day, with the capital cloaked in the sickly yellow glow of the sandstorm, which hampered Biden's travel, the vice president met with Ambassador Christopher R. Hill and U.S. military commander Gen. Ray Odierno. He then met with senior Iraqi leaders and, at least publicly, stressed that the United States remains fully engaged.

"President Obama asked me to return with a message -- that the United States is committed to Iraq's progress and success," Biden said in a statement aired by Iraqi state television after his meeting with Maliki.

"We are looking forward to strengthening our relationship," Maliki added.

In Biden's last visit to Iraq, in January before Obama's inauguration, Iraqi and U.S. officials said he had delivered another message: American patience had its limits, and Iraqi politicians would have to make a more concerted attempt to resolve their conflicts, particularly over the disputed border and the future of the contested northern city of Kirkuk. He seemed to reiterate a version of that message Friday.

"These are challenges for the Iraqis themselves to face and solve," the senior administration official said. "It's not for us to solve it for them."

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