BAGHDAD — Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Baghdad on Monday to mark the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq and underscore America's "growing sense of urgency" that a new Iraqi government be formed.
Biden landed in Baghdad on a C-17 military transport plane - military flights are considered the only safe mode of air travel for United States officials despite the relative improvement in security - ahead of a ceremony on Wednesday marking the withdrawal of the last U.S. combat troops from Baghdad. The drawdown is in line with President Barack Obama's pledge to end the combat phase of the seven-year war by Sept 1.
Almost six months after Iraqis voted in national elections, talks to form a coalition government remain stalled over who would be prime minister.
"We are determined to build a long-term partnership with the government of Iraq and the Iraqi people, but to build a partnership you need a partner," Biden's national security adviser, Tony Blinken, told reporters shortly after arriving at the sprawling U.S. embassy in Baghdad's more secure Green Zone.
SECURITY FORCES ON HIGH ALERT AHEAD OF HANDOVER
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has placed security forces under high alert ahead of the Sept. 1 handover.
As Biden arrived in the country for his fifth visit as vice president, announcements sounded at the embassy warning personnel to take cover because of possible rocket or mortar attack.
Although Baghdad has been considerably calmer than a year ago, the U.S. embassy and the main military headquarters near the international airport have been the target of almost daily rocket attacks, which U.S. military officials blame on Iranian-backed groups. Visiting reporters were asked to wear body armor and helmets to move between buildings at the embassy compound.
The vice president was joined at the embassy by Gen. James Mattis, the visiting commander of U.S. Central Command, which oversees the region, as well as Gen. Ray Odierno and Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin III, who takes over from Odierno as head of U.S. Forces-Iraq on Wednesday. Under the U.S.-Iraq security agreement, the remaining 50,000 troops here will stay on to advise and train Iraqi forces until the end of next year.
Blinken said the U.S. was not trying to dictate the outcome of talks to form a new government here but said: "There was a growing sense of urgency" that government formation move forward.
BIDEN TO BRIEF IRAQI LEADERS
Washington has called for an "inclusive government" to be formed and has been trying to find a way to bring in both Maliki and his major challenger Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who heads a political bloc with wide Sunni Arab participation. The U.S. has backed creating a new security council which would be led by Allawi - a body not provided for in the Iraqi Constitution - leaving Maliki to potentially remain as prime minister.
National security adviser Blinken said the vice president would brief Maliki, the Iraqi president, vice president, and other political leaders on a major address on Iraq to be given by Obama on Tuesday night. He said among the themes were that the president was fulfilling his promise to "responsibly" end the war in Iraq and that the U.S. will remain engaged in the country, increasing its civilian presence here as troop levels decrease.
(The Monitor and McClatchy operate a joint bureau in Baghdad)