Biden affirms 'responsible' Iraq pullout

January 13, 2009 8:34:55 AM PST
Vice President-elect Joe Biden told Iraqi leaders Tuesday that the incoming U.S. administration is committed to a responsible troop withdrawal that does not endanger improvements in security, an Iraqi spokesman said. Biden delivered the message in talks with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on the second day of his visit to Iraq, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told The Associated Press.

President-elect Barack Obama pledged during his election campaign to withdraw all American combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office and shift the focus to Afghanistan to combat a resurgent Taliban and al-Qaida-linked militants.

Since the November election, however, the U.S. and Iraq have signed a new security agreement that provides for all the more than 140,000 U.S. troops to leave by 2012, despite concerns among senior U.S. commanders that Iraqi forces might not be ready by then to ensure stability.

Biden, a Democrat from Delaware who has been a frequent visitor to Iraq as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the agreement sets out a new strategy between Iraq and America, according to al-Dabbagh.

"He said that Obama is committed to withdraw but he wants the withdrawal to be a responsible one. Obama does not want to waste the security gains that have been achieved," al-Dabbagh said.

Biden and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham arrived in Baghdad on Monday after visits to Afghanistan and Pakistan. But Biden made no public comment about his meetings in the capital, leaving Iraqi officials to describe their meetings.

Biden gave assurances that the new administration will stick to the timetable in the agreement, Al-Dabbagh said.

Since the election, Obama, who is to take office on Jan. 20, has said he is committed to bringing the troops home but has pledged to consult with U.S. commanders, who caution against removing U.S. forces too quickly.

Although violence has declined sharply in Iraq, the U.S. military has warned that security gains are fragile and extremists are likely to step up attacks ahead of this month's provincial elections.

The Iraqi spokesman also said Biden talked about the U.S.

financial crisis and expressed support for Iraq's efforts to build a democratic society from the rubble of the nearly 6-year war.

Biden also urged cooperation among the country's religious and ethnic groups, the spokesman added.

Following his meetings in Baghdad, Biden got a a firsthand look at the ethnic tensions during his visit to Kirkuk, an oil-rich northern city claimed by Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen. He met with the local provincial council, which includes members of all the competing groups.

Before the meeting, Biden told reporters that the Kirkuk issue was important to the U.S., which hoped the rival claims could be resolved peacefully soon.

Iraq's parliament decided to postpone provincial elections in the Kirkuk area because the ethnic groups could not agree on a power-sharing arrangement.

Last month, a suicide bomber killed at least 55 people in a restaurant near Kirkuk where Kurdish officials and Arab tribal leaders were trying to reconcile their differences.