Vice President Biden flies into Iraq
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Vice President Joe Biden flew into Iraq Thursday for his first visit to the country since Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was reappointed for a second term.
Biden, picked by President Barack Obama as his point person for Iraq, was to meet with Iraqi officials for talks as the U.S. military prepares for a full withdrawal at the end of the year, eight years after ousting Saddam Hussein.
Fewer than 50,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, compared with 144,000 in January 2009, when Obama and Biden took office. They have been focused since the end of August on advising and assisting Iraqi forces as they take the lead in the fight against a weakened yet resilient insurgency.
Maliki is under pressure not to extend the U.S. military presence beyond the end of the year even though Iraqi and U.S. officials say the country will not be in a position to defend its borders on its own. It will not have a fully functional air force by then.
Anti-U.S. Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose movement has seven ministries in Maliki's new government, demanded upon his return from exile in Iran last week that the government honor a promise not to allow any U.S. soldiers to remain behind.
Biden has visited Iraq three times in the past 12 months. His current visit is his seventh to the country since January 2009.
On his last trip in September to mark the formal end of U.S. combat operations on August 31, Biden urged Iraq to overcome a political logjam that had prevented politicians from reaching an agreement on a new government months after a March election.
U.S. officials pushed for a government that would include all the major alliances, including both the actual vote winner, former premier Iyad Allawi's Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, and Maliki's Shi'ite-led State of Law.
Iraqiya ended up controlling several key posts in the new Maliki government, including that of finance minister. Allawi himself will head a council that will have some influence over foreign, economic and defense policy. Nevertheless, relations between Maliki and Allawi are expected to remain strained.
Biden was to meet with Maliki, Allawi, Iraqi President Jala Talabani, Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi during his current trip, the third stop on an international tour after visits to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Allawi had warned that violence could surge again if Iraqiya was excluded from power, angering the Sunni voters who backed it in the election just as the sectarian slaughter that threatened to tear Iraq apart at its peak in 2006/07 fades.
(Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by Angus MacSwan)
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