WASHINGTON U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday urged Iraq's politicians, still unable to agree on a new government, to "get on with the business of governing" as U.S. troops prepare to end their combat mission.
Despite the deadlock in Baghdad, the U.S. military has kept its withdrawal timetable on track. It is due to reduce the size of its forces in Iraq to 50,000 troops by August 31, when they will formally move to a more advisory role supporting Iraq's security forces.
"By the end of 2011, all of America's forces will leave Iraq, and its security will be wholly in the hands of its government and its people," Biden told members of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, at a ceremony at Fort Drum in New York as he welcomed them home from Iraq.
Biden said 1 million U.S. service members, including his own son, had been deployed in support of the Iraq war effort and had enabled Iraq to hold two successful elections.
"Now their political leaders must fulfill their responsibility and get on with the business of governing," he said in one of the biggest speeches on Iraq by an Obama administration official.
But Iraq appeared no closer to a new government on Wednesday as lawmakers called off a scheduled session of parliament after political factions said they needed more time to decide on cabinet posts.
Senior members of the administration have been speaking more forcefully in recent weeks about the need for Iraq's squabbling Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish factions to put aside their differences and form a government, nearly five months after parliamentary elections were held in March.
Biden, Obama's point man on Iraq, has been in frequent telephone contact with Iraqi leaders and traveled to Iraq earlier this month to nudge them toward an agreement.
IRAQ A "VALUABLE ALLY"
Sunni Islamist insurgents have sought to exploit the power vacuum. There have been almost daily bombing and shooting attacks in which hundreds of Iraqis have died, although overall violence has dropped sharply since 2006-2007, when thousands of Iraqis were killed in sectarian blood-letting.
In the latest attack, a bomb killed five Iraqis standing in a line to collect their pensions outside a state-owned bank in Baghdad's Sadr City slum on Wednesday.
Biden's speech is part of an effort by the Obama administration to remind Americans that while Iraq may no longer be on the front pages of U.S. newspapers there are still tens of thousands of troops deployed there.
Biden said Iraq's stability was vital to American interests as it was a "valuable ally" in the Middle East.
The Iraq war, a major issue during the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, now gets scant mention in the U.S. media, and the Obama administration is focused on turning around its troubled war effort in Afghanistan.
With Americans still preoccupied with high unemployment and a stuttering economic recovery, the Iraq war has not figured much in the campaign for congressional elections in November.
While the Obama administration is struggling to win domestic support for its unpopular war in Afghanistan, Biden has held up Iraq as possibly one of its greatest achievements.
The U.S. military has increasingly taken a backseat role in Iraq since pulling out of urban centers in June last year.
But Pentagon officials have made clear that U.S. troops who remain in Iraq come September 1 will still be capable of conducting military operations.
Some 4,400 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq since U.S. forces invaded in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein, according to icasualties.org, a website that tracks U.S. military casualties there.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Eric Beech)