- Associated Press - Monday, August 30, 2010

BAGHDAD (AP) — Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. returned to Iraq on Monday to mark the formal end to U.S. combat operations and to push the country’s leaders to end a six-month stalemate blocking the formation of a new government.

He came to preside over a military change-of-command ceremony on Wednesday. The event will signal a shift toward a greater U.S. diplomatic role as the military mission dwindles seven years after the American invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Biden tried to reassure Iraqis on the transition.

“We’re going to be just fine. They’re going to be just fine,” he said during a photo opportunity at the U.S. Embassy. He was flanked by Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, Ambassador Jim Jeffrey and Marine Gen. James Mattis, the new leader of the U.S. Central Command.

The Sept. 1 ceremony also marks the start of the so-called “Operation New Dawn,” symbolizing the beginning of the end of the American military’s mission in Iraq since invading in March 2003.

Just under 50,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, down from a peak of nearly 170,000 at the height of the 2007 military surge that is credited with helping turn the tide in Iraq as it teetered on the brink of civil war. Additionally, U.S. troops no longer will be allowed to go on combat missions unless requested and accompanied by Iraqi forces.

Underscoring the shift, officials said Mr. Biden will make a new appeal to Iraqi leaders, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and political archrival Ayad Allawi, a former Iraqi premier, to end the political deadlock and seat a new government. Parliamentary elections March 7 left Iraq without a clear winner, and insurgents have exploited the uncertainty to hammer Iraqi security forces in near-daily attacks.

In a daylong meeting Tuesday, Mr. Biden will “urge Iraqi leaders to conclude negotiations on the formation of a new government,” the White House said in a statement.

Mr. Allawi heads the secular, Sunni-dominated Iraqiya political coalition, which narrowly denied Mr. al-Maliki a win in the March vote. Both Mr. al-Maliki and Mr. Allawi want to be prime minister, and U.S. diplomats have encouraged a power-sharing agreement between them to control a majority of parliament and win the right to choose the new government’s leaders.

So far, neither man has backed down, creating a political impasse and leading to back-room jockeying by hard-line Shi’ite groups for a larger share of power.

The White House said Mr. Biden also plans to sit down with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, Shi’ite Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi and Shi’ite cleric Ammar al-Hakim, leader of the Iranian-backed Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.

Tony Blinken, Mr. Biden‘s top national security adviser, said the delay in seating a new government has slowed U.S. pressure on the United Nations to lift sanctions on Iraq that have been in place since the 1991 Kuwaiti invasion.

Still, Mr. Blinken said, the United States is “determined to build a long-term partnership” with Iraq.

“We’re not disengaging from Iraq,” Mr. Blinken told reporters. “And even as we draw down our troops, we are ramping up our engagement across the board.”

It was the vice president’s sixth trip to Iraq since he was elected.

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