By Liz Sly
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 5:29 PM
BAGHDAD - Vice President Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Thursday reiterated their commitment to the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of this year, at their first meeting since a new Iraqi government was formed last month, the government's spokesman said.
Biden was in Baghdad on an unannounced visit to congratulate Iraq's leaders on assembling a government after 10 months of political deadlock, which also froze discussion of the sensitive subject of a U.S. presence in Iraq beyond the December deadline for American forces to leave.
Biden's talks with Maliki focused on the U.S.-Iraqi relationship and the need to forge a long-term "strategic partnership," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said. But he added that at no point did either leader raise the possibility that any troops will stay past the deadline.
"This was not a point of discussion. There was discussion of the fulfillment of the agreement, which clearly states the troops will leave by the end of 2011," Dabbagh said in a reference to the security agreement negotiated between then-President George W. Bush and Maliki in 2008. "We are not discussing any troops to be here after 2011."
Biden did not comment after his talk with Maliki. But speaking to reporters before a subsequent meeting with President Jalal Talabani, he said that a democratic and prosperous Iraq would be "the single most significant strategic thing that could happen to the United States in this region."
All of the 47,000 U.S. troops in Iraq are scheduled to leave by the end of the year under the terms of the 2008 agreement.
Iraqi military commanders have said they would prefer at least some form of continued U.S. military presence, and U.S. commanders say Iraq's security forces will need help with training and logistics for several more years.
But the political climate has been complicated by the inclusion in the government of the faction led by anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who returned to Iraq last week after nearly four years of self-imposed exile in Iran. Maliki, who is embarking on his second term in office in large part because of Sadr's decision to support him, has publicly said that he does not want to retain U.S. troops beyond the deadline.
U.S. officials say they are now exploring ways of providing military help without a formal troop presence, with the State Department expected to play a lead role in overseeing a small number of military trainers and private contractors.
Dabbagh said that Maliki told Biden he was keen to revive the stalled Strategic Framework Agreement, which was signed alongside the security agreement and which provides for U.S.-Iraqi cooperation across a broad range of fields, including security. Discussions under the agreement had been suspended pending the formation of a new government.
"The focus now is the Strategic Framework Agreement," Dabbagh said.
As Biden began his meetings Thursday, three small bombs exploded in Baghdad, killing two people and wounding 11 in a reminder of the security challenges that remain despite a dramatic decline in violence in recent years.