Biden in Iraq for Talks and Handover
BAGHDAD â€” Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. arrived in Baghdad on Monday to commemorate the official end of the United States combat mission and to meet with Iraqi political leaders, who have yet to form a government more than five months after elections.
â€œWe are going to be just fine; they are going to be just fine,â€ Mr. Biden told reporters as he prepared to confer with James F. Jeffrey, the new American ambassador in Baghdad, and Gen. Ray Odierno, the departing American commander in Baghdad.
Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, General Odiernoâ€™s successor, who will formally take command on Wednesday, and Gen. James N. Mattis, the head of Central Command, also attended the evening session with the vice president.
The Iraqi public is increasingly discontented with the political gridlock, and American military leaders are concerned that a prolonged stalemate could lead to an erosion of security gains.
In the past few months, insurgents have significantly increased the number of rocket and mortar attacks on the fortified Green Zone that houses the Iraqi government and on Baghdadâ€™s international airport.
An aide to Mr. Biden said Iraq had a functioning caretaker government and sought to dispel any sense of crisis. But he acknowledged that the delay in seating a new government had made it hard for Iraq to address longstanding political, legal and economic problems, and to further develop its relationship with the United States. â€œTo build a partnership, you need a partner,â€ said Antony J. Blinken, Mr. Bidenâ€™s national security adviser. â€œThe vice president is going to urge the leaders to bring this process to a conclusion.â€
The Obama administration has been reported to be sympathetic to a compromise plan in which Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki might retain his post with somewhat more limited powers while a new council with binding authority would be established under Ayad Allawi, a former interim prime minister and leader of a political coalition that is a rival to Mr. Malikiâ€™s.
Mr. Blinken said the United States did not have a plan for breaking the political logjam in Baghdad or a specific candidate for prime minister.
Still, he signaled that the Obama administration believed that both Mr. Malikiâ€™s State of Law coalition and Mr. Allawiâ€™s Iraqiya coalition â€” the two leading blocs in the voting in March â€” should be part of â€œthe foundation of the next government,â€ along with the Kurdish alliance.
Asked about the bloc of candidates loyal to Moktada al-Sadr, the Shiite anti-American cleric, Mr. Blinken suggested that the United States did not see them as useful members of a new governing coalition â€” or, as he put it, the Iraqi government should include â€œcoalitions that are interested in building a long-term partnership with the United States.â€
Mr. Biden also plans to meet with Mr. Maliki; Mr. Allawi; President Jalal Talabani; Vice Presidents Tariq al-Hashimi and Adel Abdul Mahdi; and Ammar al-Hakim, the chairman of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.
Aides said Mr. Biden was previewing President Obamaâ€™s Tuesday speech with Iraqi leaders; it is intended to reinforce the message that the United States aims to follow through with its troop withdrawal but also wants a long-term relationship with Iraq.
Mr. Biden will attend the ceremony on Wednesday to formally commemorate the end of the combat mission in Iraq and the change of command.
The vice presidentâ€™s trip to Baghdad in a C-17 cargo plane was cloaked in secrecy, reflecting the underlying concern about the security of visiting leaders.
Brig. Gen. Ralph Baker, the deputy commander of American forces in central Iraq, said the number of mortar and rocket attacks on the Green Zone and the international airport totaled around 60 in the past two months, compared with â€œtwo or threeâ€ in previous months.