BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Vice President Joe Biden said Wednesday the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq by the end of the year opened a new phase in relations between the two countries, including a robust security partnership.
The remaining 13,000 U.S. troops in Iraq are scheduled to leave by the end of the year when a bilateral security pact expires, nearly nine years after the U.S. invasion that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
“We are embarking on a new... and a comprehensive relationship between the United States and Iraq as sovereign partners,” Biden said after meeting with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and other Iraqi officials.
Violence in Iraq has fallen sharply since the height of the sectarian slaughter in 2006-2007, and Maliki leads a fragile power-sharing government that still struggles to balance the interests of Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish political blocs.
U.S. President Barack Obama announced last month that U.S. troops would come home at the end of the year as scheduled after talks to keep a small number of American soldiers in Iraq as trainers fell apart over the issue of immunity.
U.S. officials had asked for around 3,000 U.S. troops to stay in Iraq, but Maliki’s government did not have the political capital to push any agreement on immunity through parliament.
Around 200 U.S. trainers will be attached to the embassy’s Office of Security Cooperation in Iraq and 700 civilian trainers will help Iraqi forces train on new U.S. military hardware they have purchased such as F-16 fighters and Abrams tanks.
“No doubt, U.S. forces have a role in providing training for Iraqi forces,” Maliki said at the end of the meeting of a bilateral coordinating committee. “The relationship we establish today is based on the will of two countries.”
Biden’s visit spotlights the fulfillment of a key pledge by Obama as he campaigns for re-election in 2012, bringing an end to an unpopular war when most Americans are focused on the economy and jobs back home.
For many Iraqis, though, withdrawal brings mixed reactions.
Many remember abuses committed by U.S. troops and civilian contractors during the most violent years of the country’s conflict. But the U.S. pullout is also viewed with apprehension by Iraqis worried about a surge in sectarian tensions once the buffer of an American military presence is gone.
Hundreds of supporters of anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr protested peacefully against Biden’s visit in the mainly Shi’ite southern cities of Najaf and Basra, and in the cleric’s stronghold in the Sadr City neighborhood in Baghdad.
Sadr, whose Mehdi Army militia once battled U.S. soldiers, had warned his militiamen could take up arms against any U.S. troops remaining in the country. His supporters are now key allies of Maliki’s coalition in parliament.
The deadline for withdrawal approaching, U.S. troops are quickly wrapping up their military presence in Iraq with thousands of vehicles and soldiers crossing the border into Kuwait each week.
Saying Iraq had earned the respect of all Americans for enduring decades of tyranny under Saddam, and the eight years of militant violence that followed the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Biden also noted the loss of U.S. lives.
“We feel we have a particular kinship to you because our people, our military in particular, have made sacrifices as well along the way,” he said.
Almost 4,500 U.S. troops have died since the invasion. The death toll among Iraqis is much higher, and is estimated at least around 60,000, according to government figures.
Iraqi forces are generally seen as capable of containing a stubborn Sunni insurgency tied to al Qaeda and rival Shi’ite militias the U.S. says are backed by neighboring Iran.
But insurgents still carry out almost daily bombings and attacks, many on local security forces or government offices in an attempt to show Maliki is unable to provide stability.
At least 19 people were killed Monday when a suicide bomber attacked a military base in the town of Taji, and another person was killed and three more wounded by a blast in the car park of the Iraqi parliament.
Reporting Alister Bull, editing by Rosalind Russell