BAGHDAD — Vice President Joe Biden sought Monday to reassure Iraq that America is not abandoning it as the U.S. military steps back and a stalemate over who will run the war-battered nation's next government approaches its sixth month.
Biden flew into Baghdad a few days before a military ceremony formally marking the end of U.S. combat operations seven years after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. He will also try to spur the nation's leaders to forge a power-sharing agreement to bring some much-needed political stability to Iraq after March parliamentary elections failed to produce a clear winner.
Biden tried to reassure Iraqis that America's transition to more of a diplomatic mission in Iraq than a military one would be smooth.
"We're going to be just fine. They're going to be just fine," he said during a brief photo opportunity at the U.S. Embassy, sitting next to Ambassador Jim Jeffrey and surrounded by top U.S. generals overseeing Iraq and the rest of the Middle East.
The Sept. 1 ceremony marks the start of the so-called "Operation New Dawn" – symbolizing the beginning of the end of the American military's mission in Iraq.
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 will no longer be allowed to go on combat missions unless requested and accompanied by Iraqi forces.
Now, officials said, the American military will take a backseat to the U.S. State Department's efforts to help Iraq's security, economy and government stand alone as all U.S. troops leave by the end of 2011. Even after that, officials said, the U.S. will continue to assist Iraq in what Biden adviser Tony Blinken called "a long-term partnership."
"We're not disengaging from Iraq," Blinken told reporters. "And even as we draw down our troops, we are ramping up our engagement across the board."
Yet Iraq's political impasse has slowed U.S. efforts to help, Blinken said. Without a new government in place, Blinken said the U.S. is unable to put much pressure on the United Nations to lift sanctions on Iraq that have been in place since the 1991 invasion of Kuwait. The U.N. sanctions require Iraq to pay compensation to Kuwait.
The scaled-back military mission has also left Iraqis worried that their fledgling security forces won't be able to protect the nation. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki last week put Iraq on its highest level of alert for possible suicide bomb attacks by al-Qaida and Saddam's former Baath Party loyalists through Wednesday's ceremony.
Even the U.S. Embassy in the heavily fortified Green Zone was briefly put on lockdown shortly before Biden's arrival Monday because of incoming fire detected by radars. Hours later, Iraqi police said five Katyusha rockets hit the Green Zone around 10:30 p.m., but there were no immediate reports of casualties.
U.S. Brig. Gen. Ralph Baker cited a marked increase over the last two months in indirect fire – usually mortar shells or rockets – into the Green Zone and Baghdad's international airport.
"I don't support the U.S. troops' withdrawal for the time being," Baghdad resident Samira Gorgess said Monday. "Iraq is still in need of U.S. forces as the security situation in Iraq is still unstable."
Michael Rubin, an Iraq political scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, predicted that U.S. influence in Iraq will dwindle with the military mission, despite stepped-up diplomacy.
"In Baghdad, we might maintain the largest U.S. embassy in the world, but our diplomats might as well be exhibits in a zoo," Rubin said. "The fact of the matter is that our influence always had been proportional to boots on the ground, and we are consciously eliminating our influence during a political crisis and thereby creating a perfect storm."
Biden will try to prevent that with back-to-back meetings Tuesday with Iraq's top political leaders, including al-Maliki and his political archrival, former Premier Ayad Allawi.
Allawi heads the secular Sunni-dominated Iraqiya political coalition that narrowly denied al-Maliki a win in the election. Both al-Maliki and Allawi want to be prime minister in the next government, but neither won enough seats to govern alone, making the formation of a coalition necessary.
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 backroom jockeying by hard-line Shiite groups for a larger share of power.
The White House said Biden also plans to sit down with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, Shiite Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi and Shiite cleric Ammar al-Hakim, leader of the Iranian-backed Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.
The capstone of Biden's visit, however, will come Wednesday. He will preside over a ceremony in which Gen. Ray Odierno will end more than five years in Iraq and hand over the reins as commander of U.S. forces here to Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin. Austin also has served extensively in Iraq, most recently as commander of troop operations in 2008-09.