Biden visits Baghdad ‘to celebrate progress’

BAGHDAD:US Vice President Joe Biden came to Iraq on Thursday “to help Iraqis celebrate” progress, he said, while warning during his surprise visit that Baghdad’s forces will continue to need American support.Biden’s arrival came during an unannounced tour of world hotspots that had previously taken him to Kabul, where he met Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and to Islamabad, where he had talks with top Pakistani officials.“You have trained the Iraqi forces to the point now where they can be in the lead — they’re getting better and better every day,” Biden told around 300 US troops gathered in now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein’s Al-Faw Palace in the US military’s Camp Victory base on Baghdad’s outskirts.But he added: “They are going to continue to need our assistance … for some time.”After the end of 2011, “we will probably be in the position of still maintaining, giving support. We’ll probably be in the position of still, in certain specific areas, having to train and equip” Iraqi forces, Biden said.

Biden landed at Baghdad airport just after midnight and, according to reporters travelling with him, his first meeting on Thursday was with the top US commander in Iraq, General Lloyd Austin, and US Ambassador James Jeffrey.“I’m here to help the Iraqis celebrate the progress they made,” Biden said earlier during a photo-op with the two officials at the US embassy in Baghdad’s highly fortified Green Zone. “They formed a government. And that’s a good thing. They have a long way to go.”He then went into talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki — his first meeting with him since the premier began his second term.“It’s very good to be back,” Biden told Maliki.Starkly illustrating Biden’s comment that there is still progress to be made, three bombs exploded near mosques in Baghdad hours after he arrived, killing two people and wounding 13 others, an interior ministry official said. Gunmen also killed one person and wounded another.However, Maliki assured Biden that Iraq was “capable of meeting the security challenge,” the premier’s office said.Biden also met President Jalal Talabani, Finance Minister Rafa al-Essawi and parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, according to reporters travelling with him.And he later met Iyad Allawi, the Shiite Muslim who heads the mostly Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc that won the most votes in Iraq’s parliamentary elections last year.On Thursday evening, Biden arrived in the northern Kurdish regional capital of Arbil for talks with Kurdish leader Massud Barzani.

Biden’s seventh visit to Iraq since January 2009 comes days after radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a potent force in Iraqi politics, exhorted a boisterous crowd to resist the US “occupation” by all means in his first speech since returning home to the holy city of Najaf.Maliki was approved for a second term by parliament last month along with a national unity cabinet after more than nine months of political deadlock.Although US combat operations have officially been declared over, some 50,000 American troops remain in the country. They are required to withdraw by the end of 2011 under a security accord between Baghdad and Washington.US soldiers in Iraq are allowed to return fire in self-defence and take part in operations if requested by their Iraqi counterparts, under the terms of the bilateral security pact.In Islamabad, Biden delivered a bold message of support for key anti-terror ally Pakistan, telling the country that the United States is “not the enemy of Islam.”Before Pakistan, Biden visited Kabul, where he met Karzai for talks that included discussing the presence of US troops serving in Afghanistan as part of an international force of some 140,000 personnel – Khaleejnews