- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 30, 2011

With just a month to go to complete a full U.S. troop pullout from Iraq, Vice President Joseph R. Biden met Wednesday with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad to help define the new relationship between the two countries.

“We are embarking on a new path together, a new phase in this relationship,” Mr. Biden said at the beginning of the talks.

Mr. Biden made an unannounced visit to Baghdad late Tuesday to mark the end of the Iraq war, which began with the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein but continued for more than eight years as factions rose up to fight the U.S. presence and one another over control of regions of the country.

As streams of convoys and transport aircraft carried troops out of the country, Mr. Biden told Mr. al-Maliki that a complete U.S. troop withdrawal is in the best interest of the U.S. and Iraq and marks the beginning of their relationship as “two sovereign nations.”

Mr. Biden acknowledged the turmoil Iraq has suffered over the past decade - “from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein” and by being “victimized by terror” in the years after the dictator’s fall. He thanked the Iraqi people for their resilience and resolve, calling them the country’s best “natural resource.”

“Few nations have gone through what you’ve gone through,” Mr. Biden said, “but now Iraq is poised to join the community of nations who are the great contributors to the world.”

The exact level of ongoing U.S. military assistance is expected to be a major focus of the talks. On Oct. 21, President Obama and Mr. al-Maliki agreed to a drawdown of U.S. forces by the end of 2011 after the two governments could not agree on extending a “status of forces” pact for U.S. troops serving there. Some U.S. military advisers want to keep several thousand U.S. troops in Iraq into 2012, in part as a precaution against incursions from Iran.

The State Department will maintain a strong presence in Iraq, including an estimated 4,500 private security contractors there to protect U.S. civilian workers at the embassy and elsewhere.

Already, Mr. Biden said, the U.S. has completed nearly 1,800 projects in Iraq’s health sector, valued at $800 million, including the renovation of 122 primary health centers. The U.S. also has invested in transportation infrastructure, an air traffic control network and railroads.

Mr. al-Maliki echoed many of Mr. Biden’s statements about the new phase of the U.S.-Iraqi relationship, stressing that the ties between the two countries would be based on “mutual respect.”

Iraq is now capable of protecting its internal security, Mr. al-Maliki said, noting that the U.S. military would continue to have a role in providing training for Iraqi forces. Mr. al-Maliki also said he hoped U.S. companies would come to Iraq with the same force as U.S. troops did in 2003.

“Yes, we will face some difficulties,” he said, but as long as the U.S. and Iraq agree on a “robust partnership,” the two nations will find many areas of cooperation.

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