The US vice president Joe Biden was to hold talks with Iraqi leaders on Friday focused on bridging the country's sectarian divide ahead of a complete American military pullout in 2011. Mr Biden was first scheduled to meet General Ray Odierno, the top US officer in Iraq, as well as Christopher Hill, Washington's ambassador to Baghdad. The trip comes just after the president Barack Obama asked the vice president to oversee the US departure from Iraq and Washington's effort to promote political reconciliation in the country.
The White House said Mr Biden, who landed late on Thursday, would also visit American troops now stationed on the outskirts of Iraqi cities, following a major pullback from urban centres that was completed on Tuesday. It also said talks with political leaders, including the prime, insister Nouri al Maliki, will renew the US commitment to complete the terms of the bilateral accord signed last November that set a timeline for the US military exit.
It is Mr Biden's first trip to Iraq since he was sworn in as vice president in January, but he previously made several trips when he was chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee. The White House said Mr Biden would work closely with Gen Odierno and Mr Hill, as US forces prepare to leave the country for good. "The vice president has been asked by the president to oversee the policy," the White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on the day of the US troop pullback.
Mr Biden would work with Iraqis "toward overcoming their political differences and achieving the type of reconciliation that we all understand has yet to fully take place but needs to take place," he said. But Mr Gibbs said an idea once put forward by Mr Biden ? dividing Iraq's Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities into a federation of autonomous zones ? was not on the table for the Obama administration.
The vice president's arrival in Baghdad was welcomed by Wathad Shaqir, chief of the Iraqi parliament's national reconciliation committee. "I believe he has brought some suggestions regarding the reconciliation project," Mr Shaqir told state television, noting he was happy that Mr Biden's divisional zoning idea had been abandoned. "We are looking forward to a new page," he added. A key problem facing the reconciliation effort is a Sunni demand that Baathists loyal to now executed dictator Saddam Hussein, who were excluded from politics after the 2003 US-led invasion, be reintegrated.
Major difficulties are also posed by the crucial oil-hub city and province of Kirkuk, which Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region has laid claim to in a new draft constitution that has irked the federal government in Baghdad. The Kurds have long striven to expand their northern territory beyond its current three provinces to other areas where the population was historically Kurdish. Kurdistan, whose capital is Arbil in northern Iraq, has its own flag which is raised beside the federal flag, and also has its own slogan, national anthem and national day.
Iraq marked Tuesday's American pullback with a national holiday. The country's 500,000 police and 250,000 soldiers are now in charge in cities, towns and villages. Most of the 133,000 US troops remaining in the country will be based outside towns and cities. The Americans will largely play a training and support role. Under the Status of Forces Agreement signed in November, US commanders must now seek Iraqi permission to conduct operations, but their troops retain a unilateral right to "legitimate self-defence."