VP Biden visits Iraq as takes new role in US exit
US Vice President Joe Biden flew in to Baghdad on Thursday on a surprise visit just two days after a long-planned pullback of American troops from conflict-hit Iraq's towns and cities.
Biden was greeted at Baghdad airport by Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, who said the vice president would hold talks with Iraqi political leaders, expected to focus on military issues and efforts to reconcile the country's sects.
"This visit comes at a very important time after the withdrawal of US forces," Zebari told AFP.
Biden's trip came just after President Barack Obama asked his vice president to take on a new role overseeing the US departure from Iraq and Washington's effort to promote internal political reconciliation in Baghdad.
The White House said Biden will visit American troops now stationed on the outskirts of Iraqi cities.
It also said talks with political leaders including Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will renew the US commitment to complete the terms of the bilateral accord leading to a complete withdrawal of US troops by the end of 2011.
At the time of the pullback, Obama, who opposed the 2003 invasion ordered by his predecessor George W. Bush, hailed the move as an "important milestone" but warned of difficult days of bloodshed and violence ahead.
It is Biden's first trip to Iraq since he was sworn in as vice president in January, but he previously made repeated trips to the country when he was chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee.
The White House said on Tuesday that Biden would work closely with General Ray Odierno, the top US commander in Iraq, and the US ambassador to Baghdad, Christopher Hill, as US forces prepare to leave the country for good.
"The vice president has been asked by the president to oversee the policy," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said, speaking on the day that US troops withdrew from Iraqi urban centres under last November's accord with Baghdad.
Biden would work with Iraqis "toward overcoming their political differences and achieving the type of reconciliation that we all understand has yet to fully take place but needs to take place," he said.
But Gibbs said an idea once put forward by Biden, of dividing Iraq's Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities into a federation of autonomous zones, was not on the table for the Obama administration.
Biden's arrival in Baghdad was welcomed by Wathad Shaqir, chief of the Iraqi parliament's national reconciliation committee, ahead of talks focused on the issue expected Friday.
"I believe he has brought some suggestions regarding the reconciliation project," Shaqir told state television, noting he was happy that Biden's divisional zoning idea had been abandoned.
"We are looking forward to a new page," he added.
Iraq marked the American pullback on Tuesday with a national holiday, six years after the invasion which toppled Saddam Hussein but sparked an insurgency and sectarian bloodshed that has left tens of thousands dead.
Iraq's 500,000 police and 250,000 soldiers are now in charge in cities, towns and villages, while most of the 133,000 US troops remaining in the country will be based outside towns and cities.
The Americans will largely play a training and support role.
Under the Status of Forces Agreement signed in November, US commanders must now seek Iraqi permission to conduct operations, but their troops retain a unilateral right to "legitimate self-defence."