By Liz Sly
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 4:46 AM
BAGHDAD - Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Baghdad on an unannounced visit early Thursday for talks expected to focus on America's future relationship with Iraq beyond the scheduled December 2011 deadline for the departure of U.S. troops.
Biden will meet with Iraqi leaders for the first time since the formation of a new Iraqi government last month opened the door to discussions on the politically sensitive subject.
He is also expected to offer his congratulations on the establishment of what the White House hailed as "an inclusive national partnership government" grouping all the country's major factions, after 10 months of tortuous negotiations that at times had threatened to tear the country apart.
"I'm here to help the Iraqis celebrate the progress they made. They formed a government. And that's a good thing," Biden said ahead of a briefing with Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey.
"They have a long way to go," Biden added.
There are 47,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and they are scheduled to leave by the end of the year under terms of a security agreement negotiated between then-President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in 2008.
Maliki, embarking on his second term of office, publicly insists that he wants all the troops to leave on time, and the Obama administration also says it is planning to pull them out on schedule.
But Iraqi military commanders have said they would prefer at least some form of continued U.S. military presence to help deter external threats from Iraq's neighbors until Iraq has its own conventional defense capabilities.
Although Iraq's security forces have proved themselves able to sustain security gains since the formal end of American combat operations last August, they will also need help with training and logistics for several more years, U.S. and Iraqi officials say.
The return to Iraq last week of the anti-American Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr has diminished the likelihood of an extended troop presence. Sadr's decision to support Maliki for a second term broke the political deadlock that had paralyzed the country since elections last March, but he has threatened to withdraw from the government if any attempt is made to retain U.S. troops beyond the deadline.
There are ways, however, of providing military help without a formal troop presence, and U.S. and Iraqi officials are looking at ways in which the State Department could oversee a small number of military trainers and contractors.
Among the officials Biden is scheduled to meet are Maliki, President Jalal Talabani, who is also starting his second term, and the new speaker of parliament, Osama al-Nujaifi. Later in the day, he is expected to visit U.S. troops at Camp Victory, the sprawling U.S. military base adjoining Baghdad's airport.
Coinciding with Biden's visit, car bombs exploded outside three Baghdad mosques early Thursday. Two people were killed and 11 wounded, the Associated Press reported.