(photo credit: AP)
BAGHDAD — US Vice President Joe Biden emphasized to Iraqi leaders Thursday that the US wants nothing more than for Iraq to be a free and democratic country in a daylong visit that officials said would focus on the departure of American troops from the country.
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Biden's trip marks the first visit by a top US official since Iraq approved a new Cabinet last month, breaking a political deadlock and jump-starting its stalled government after March's inconclusive elections. Three explosions in the capital killing two people, however, demonstrated the lingering security challenges facing the country's young democracy.
"We have one overwhelming desire, the single best thing, that could happen to the United States, literally, is for you to be a free, prosperous democracy in this part of the world," the vice president told reporters before a meeting with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
Officials said they expected the issue of whether to keep some US forces in Iraq beyond the Dec. 31 deadline to dominate the agenda with Talabani, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Kurdish President Massoud Barzani.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to be able to discuss the sensitive diplomatic issues frankly.
Under a security agreement between Washington and Baghdad, all American
troops are to leave Iraq by the end of the year. However, Iraq's top
military commander Gen. Babaker Shawkat Zebari, has said US troops
should stay until Iraq's security forces can defend its borders — which
he said could take until 2020.
But Maliki, under pressure from hardline Shiite Muslims, has signaled he
wants American troops to leave on schedule. Last weekend, the
influential and anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr returned to Iraq
after nearly four years of exile in neighboring Iran, in part to insist
that the US "occupiers" must leave on time or face retribution among his
followers "by all the means of resistance."
Talabani emphasized the importance Iraq puts on its relationship with the United States.
"We remain grateful to you ... and we know you are one of our best friends," said Talabani.
Both Washington and Baghdad had refused to discuss publicly any
possibility of US troops staying until after Iraq installed its new
government. Biden congratulated Iraq on accomplishing that political
feat, which took months of negotiations.
"I'm here to help the Iraqis celebrate the progress they've made.
They've formed a government and that's a good thing," Biden told
reporters before meeting with US ambassador James F. Jeffrey and Gen.
Lloyd Austin at the US Embassy in Baghdad.
The visit is Biden's
seventh since January 2009. He arrived in Iraq after stops in
Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the US has re-focused its efforts
against al-Qaida and allied extremist groups that threaten American