Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the number of times Vice President Biden has been to Iraq. This is his sixth trip as vice president.

Biden meets with top Iraqi politicians amid end of combat operations

Vice President Joe Biden returned to Iraq Monday to mark the formal end to U.S. combat operations and push the country's leaders to end a six-month stalemate blocking formation of a new government. (Aug. 30)
By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 31, 2010; 1:20 PM

BAGHDAD - Vice President Biden met Tuesday with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani and other senior politicians on the second day of a visit to the Iraqi capital and the last official day of U.S. combat operations in the country.

Biden accused the media of exaggerating the increase in violence here as a nearly six-month-old political impasse continues. Nevertheless, his movements were heavily guarded, and as he met with Talabani, several roads in the capital were blocked.

Biden's visit, his sixth since becoming vice president, comes as the U.S. 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 U.S. drawdown comes in the midst of a political impasse that has continued for nearly six months since national parliamentary elections and an increase in violence across the country.

Biden arrived to commemorate the change of mission in Iraq but also urge Iraqi leaders to form a government at this "critical time," said his national security adviser, Antony J. Blinken. He 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 with draw from Iraq by the end of 2011 as stipulated in a security agreement between Iraq and the United States. "Even as we draw down our troops, we are ramping up our engagement across the board."

U.S. Embassy officials were on alert Monday 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 would be unable to contain a surge in violence.

U.S. officials have said that it is critical to form a government now. Shiite incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is battling with Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite whose coalition won a slim lead in the national elections, for the chance to form the government. Biden will meet with Maliki and Allawi along with other Iraqi officials.

Last week, the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, James F. Jeffrey, warned in a briefing to reporters 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 impact. "It is something we and the Iraqis watch."

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

Biden met with outgoing and incoming U.S. military commanders Gen. Ray Odierno and Gen. Lloyd James Austin III as well as Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, who has been chosen to take over U.S. Central Command, and with Ambassador Jeffrey.

"We are going to be just fine. They're going to be just fine," Biden said, referring the transition from military to state-led operations in Iraq.

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