BAGHDAD // The US vice president, Joe Biden, arrived in Iraq yesterday to visit US soldiers just two days after all American combat troops withdrew from Baghdad and all other cities and towns in Iraq. During his visit, Mr Biden will meet with Iraqi leaders, including the president, Jalal Talabani, and the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki.
A White House statement said Mr Biden would reiterate the US commitment to carry out President Barack Obama's plan to withdraw combat forces. He also will press Iraqi leaders to make more progress toward political reconciliation. It was Mr Biden's first trip to Iraq as vice president. Mr al Maliki named the day US combat troops withdrew, June 30, as "National Sovereignty Day" and declared it a public holiday. On that same day, the White House said that Mr Biden will oversee the administration's Iraq policy and work with its government to overcoming their political differences and achieve reconciliation.
In Washington, Mr Obama said about Iraq that he has always reserved the right to adjust the US troop withdrawal timetable based on changing circumstances. But he said he was confident the US will be able to abide by agreements it made with Iraqis. In a White House interview Mr Obama also said he believed Iraqis do not want to return to spiralling violence of past years but added that he had not seen sufficient reconciliation among Iraq's political factions.
He also praised US commanders for handing over security to Iraqis in cities and urban areas this week. Mr Biden arrived as violence flared for another day in the Iraqi capital, with bombings killing at least three people in the Baghdad area in the first significant violence since Iraqi forces assumed responsibility for securing cities after the withdrawal of US combat troops from urban areas earlier this week.
A car bomb near the northern city of Kirkuk also killed one man and wounded another six others, police said. In Baghdad, the violence began when a roadside bomb struck an Iraqi army patrol, killing an Iraqi soldier and wounding seven other people, police and hospital officials said. The attack occurred near a bridge that controls access to the walled-off Green Zone in central Baghdad. A car bomb later exploded near a market on the motorway south of Baghdad, killing at least two people and wounding 15, according to a police officer at the regional command. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to release the information.
On Tuesday - the official day of the withdrawal - a car bomb killed more than 30 people in the northern city of Kirkuk. But yesterday's bombings were the first deadly attacks recorded in Baghdad after the Iraqis officially assumed responsibility for securing the cities and most of the 130,000 American troops in Iraq pulled back from urban areas to large bases on the outskirts. Persistent violence has raised concerns about the readiness of Iraqi forces to take over their own security.
At least 447 Iraqi civilians were killed in June, double the toll from the previous month, according to an Associated Press tally. Major Gen Mohammed al-Askari, a defence ministry spokesman, insisted his forces were on track in protecting the Iraqi people. "The first phase of implementing the American forces withdrawal agreement has ended peacefully and successfully without any problems," he said at a news conference.
He said 168 bases and military sites have been handed over by the US to the Iraqis, including 20 bases in the northern provinces of Ninevah, Salahuddin and Diyala, 86 bases in Baghdad, 46 in Anbar and 16 elsewhere. The pull back from cities was part of a US-Iraqi security pact and marks the first major step toward withdrawing all American forces from the country by Dec 31 2011. Mr Obama has said all combat troops will be gone by the end of August 2010, leaving 30,000 to 50,000 troops in advisory roles.
Mr al Askari predicted the number left would be on the lower end, saying all but 35,000 American troops would be withdrawing in the coming months. "Now we are working on the second phase of the agreement which is reducing the American forces before their complete withdrawal," he said. * Associated Press