- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. paid a surprise visit to Iraqi leaders in Baghdad on Tuesday, arriving for his second trip to the country this summer just as the fortified Green Zone was hit by an insurgent mortar attack that killed two civilians.

Mr. Biden was unharmed in the incident and no damage to the U.S. Embassy compound was reported, but members of the U.S. delegation said they heard a signal to take cover several times, according to a pool reporter present for the visit.

The White House announced Mr. Biden’s arrival just after 8:30 a.m. Tuesday and said the vice president’s itinerary included meetings with troops, a succession of Iraqi leaders and representatives of the U.N. mission there. President Obama has charged the vice president with monitoring the situation in the 6-year-old war as U.S. combat forces prepare to draw down.

“The whole purpose is to see how we can be help [Iraqis] resolve the outstanding political issues they have to resolve internally, so that when the [withdrawal] is fully implemented we leave a stable Iraq,” Mr. Biden told reporters after meeting with Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill.

The Associated Press reported from Baghdad that four mortar shells landed in the Green Zone, with two people reported dead and five others wounded in a residential compound inside the large protected sector.

The shells were heard as they were fired from across the river on the east bank of the Tigris, and at least one explosion was audible.

The Green Zone is the walled-off area in the heart of Baghdad that is home to government offices, the U.S. and British embassies, and the Iraqi parliament.

The vice president said Gen. Odierno is “optimistic” the Iraqi troops and police would be trained and ready for the withdrawal plan to continue as scheduled. The Iraqi government plans to hold a national referendum on the status of U.S. forces in the country in early 2010, in conjunction with national elections.

Mr. Biden told reporters in Baghdad he was “here to listen” and stressed his strong relationship with Iraqi leaders, from whom he believes he has won “a measure of trust.”

He said he’s been asked twice by the Iraqis to “act as an interlocutor” as they work through difficult political issues, including as a new law governing national elections.

“A successful election is the necessary condition for some of the outstanding political issues to be resolved,” Mr. Biden said. He spent two nights in Iraq in early July just after U.S. troops pulled out of the country’s cities as part of an overall withdrawal plan. He also was there before taking office in January.

During the three-day visit, Mr. Biden was to meet with a broad range of Iraqi officials, including President Jalal Talabani; Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; Ayad al-Samarrai, speaker of the Council of Representatives; and Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

The trip comes as Mr. Obama is considering a recommendation from his top generals for increased troop levels in Afghanistan. Attention has shifted from Iraq to Afghanistan as the military situation there has deteriorated.

Mr. Biden’s son Beau has served in Iraq with the Delaware National Guard and is expected to return home soon.

Iraqi leaders were expected to press Mr. Biden for help in dealing with rising tensions with neighboring Syria, which the government of Mr. al-Maliki has accused of harboring sympathizers of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein thought to be behind recent terrorist attacks.

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