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Biden visits Baghdad 'to celebrate progress'

US Vice President Joe Biden said on Thursday he had come to Baghdad "to help Iraqis celebrate" progress, as he met with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki hours after arriving in the Iraqi capital.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki meets with US Vice President Joe Biden in Baghdad on January 13. Biden said he had come to Baghdad "to help Iraqis celebrate," as he met with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki hours after arriving in the Iraqi capital.

Biden's unannounced tour of world hotspots had previously taken him to Kabul, where he met Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and to Islamabad, where he met with top Pakistani officials.

He landed at Baghdad airport late on Wednesday and, according to reporters travelling with him, his first meeting on Thursday morning 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. They formed a government. And that's a good thing. They have a long way to go," Biden told the reporters during a photo-op with the two officials at the US embassy in Baghdad's highly fortified Green Zone.

He went into talks with Maliki later in the morning -- his first meeting with the Iraqi leader since the prime minister began his second term.

"It's very good to be back," Biden told Maliki before going into a meeting with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, according to the reporters.

US Vice President Joe Biden meets with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in Baghdad on January 13. Biden said he had come to Baghdad "to help Iraqis celebrate," as he met with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki hours after arriving in the Iraqi capital.

Starkly illustrating Biden's comment that there is still progress to be made in Iraq, three bombs exploded near mosques in central and northern Baghdad hours after he arrived, killing two people and wounding 13 others, an interior ministry official said.

Biden is also to meet Iyad Allawi, the Shiite Muslim who heads the Iraqiya bloc that won the most votes in Iraq's parliamentary elections last year, according to the White House.

His seventh 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 on December 21 along with a national unity cabinet after more than nine months of political deadlock.

Though combat operations have officially ended, some 50,000 US troops remain in the country. They are required to withdraw by the end of 2011 under a security accord between Baghdad and Washington.

Pakistani police officials stand beside the wreckage of a police van after a roadside bomb in the garrison town of Bannu on January 13. After his visit to Pakistan, US Vice President Joe Biden flew to Iraq where he said he wanted "to help Iraqis celebrate" progress, as he met with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

American 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 a bilateral security pact.

In Islamabad, Biden delivered a bold message of support for key anti-terror ally Pakistan, telling the country America is "not the enemy of Islam."

As Biden wrapped up his visit, a suicide blast in the northwestern town of Bannu killed 18 people, most of them security officers, and wounded 15 in an attack claimed by the Taliban as revenge for US missile strikes in the area.

Biden said militancy in Pakistan was a threat to both countries, and he referred to the killing last week of Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who was shot dead by his bodyguard over his outspoken opposition to strict blasphemy laws.

The confessed killer has been hailed a hero by religious conservatives and rallies have been held across the country in his honour.

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.

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