- The Washington Times - Friday, July 3, 2009

BAGHDAD (AP) — Vice President Joe Biden discussed the future of the American mission in Iraq Friday with the top two U.S. officials there following the withdrawal of most troops from the cities.

It was the vice president’s first visit to Baghdad after being appointed to oversee the administration’s Iraq policy.

Biden’s arrival in Baghdad late Thursday came after all U.S. combat troops were pulled out of Iraq’s cities and towns on Tuesday, as part of a security agreement that will see all American soldiers out of the country by the end of 2011.

The U.S. will gradually begin drawing down forces over the coming months until there are no combat troops left in Iraq by next August.

Wearing a tan suit and suede combat boots, he had breakfast with Gen. Ray Odierno and Ambassador Christopher Hill, America’s top soldier and diplomat in Iraq. The trio made no comments as they emerged from the meeting at Odierno’s palatial residence at a U.S. military base, but Biden’s office said they discussed the withdrawal, the security situation in Iraq, the capabilities of Iraq forces and “efforts to make progress on the various outstanding political issues in the country.”

During his three-day visit, Biden also will meet with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has been criticized for failing to take advantage of security gains to make political progress. Biden’s visit is the longest by a senior U.S. elected official. President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush never stayed more than a day.

The White House has said Biden will reiterate the U.S. commitment to carry out Obama’s plan to withdraw combat forces. He also will press Iraqi leaders to make more progress on reconciliation and other political issues. It was his first trip to Iraq as vice president, although he has traveled to the country and met many of its leaders as a senator.

Biden’s schedule was delayed by a thick sandstorm that blanketed Baghdad, at one point forcing his helicopter to land shortly after takeoff, officials said.

Al-Maliki named the day U.S. combat troops withdrew, June 30, as “National Sovereignty Day” and declared it a public holiday.

On that same day, the White House said that Biden will oversee U.S. Iraq policy and work with its government to overcoming their political differences and achieve reconciliation.

Biden, whose son Beau is serving in Iraq with the Delaware National Guard, arrived as violence flared in the Iraqi capital, which has seen scores of bombing in the past two weeks.

At least 447 Iraqi civilians were killed in June, double the toll from the previous month, according to an Associated Press tally.

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