- Associated Press - Thursday, January 13, 2011

BAGHDAD | Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said Thursday that the U.S. should make sure Iraq’s stability and democracy are strong enough to make it “a country that was worthy of the sacrifices” the American military has made during eight years of war.

Mr. Biden, speaking to some 400 soldiers in Baghdad, also said the U.S. would continue to train and equip Iraqi forces beyond 2011. His remarks highlighted continuing uncertainty about whether all U.S. troops will head home by the end of the year, as required by a security agreement between the two nations.

“The Iraqi people for the first time, I suspect, I would argue, in their history are on the verge of literally creating a country that will be democratic, sustainable and, God willing, prosperous,” Mr. Biden told the troops at the military’s headquarters on the outskirts of Baghdad. “It could have a dramatic impact on this entire region, and God knows the Iraqi people deserve it.”

The White House has promised to end the war responsibly. “By that we meant we were going to end this by bringing you all home within a time certain, but leaving behind a country that was worthy of all the sacrifices that so many of your brothers and sisters have made,” Mr. Biden told the troops.

At least 4,400 U.S. troops have died since the 2003 invasion and an estimated 32,000 have been wounded.

Mr. Biden’s trip marks the first visit by a top U.S. official since Iraq approved a new Cabinet last month, breaking a political deadlock and jump-starting its stalled government after March’s inconclusive elections. But lingering security challenges remain: On Thursday, three bombings in the capital killed two people.

The address to U.S. troops capped a daylong series of meetings in Baghdad, including a session with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Mr. Biden then traveled to Irbil in northern Iraq to meet with Kurdish President Massoud Barzani.

Under a security agreement between Washington and Baghdad that was hammered out in 2008, all U.S. troops are scheduled to leave Iraq by the end of the year.

However, Iraq’s top military commander, Gen. Babaker Shawkat Zebari, has said U.S. troops should stay until Iraq’s security forces can defend its borders - which he said could take until 2020.

An aide to Mr. Biden said the vice president reiterated Washington’s longtime position that the Americans would listen to any request by the Iraqi government for troops to stay longer but that Baghdad has not yet asked them to do so. The official did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the talks.

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