U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has arrived in Iraq for talks with Iraqi leaders about the future of U.S. troops in the country as they prepare to leave the country at the end of 2011.
Biden's unannounced trip marks the first visit by a top U.S. official since a new Iraqi cabinet was approved last month, breaking a political deadlock that had lasted since March's inconclusive elections.
Upon arrival, Biden told reporters he was in Iraq to help the Iraqis celebrate the progress that they've made. But he said the Iraqis "have a long way to go."
His first meeting was at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone with the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, James Jeffrey, and the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General Lloyd Austin.
Biden then went into talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. A statement from Maliki's office said the prime minister assured Biden that government forces are "capable of meeting the security challenge" the country faces.
Biden also met with Iraqi President Jalal Talabanai, Finance Minister Rafa al-Essawi, and the speaker of parliament, Osama al-Nujaifi.
Critical Security Posts
A White House statement said Biden plans to meet later today with Iyad Allawi -- a secular Shi'ite whose cross-sectarian Al-Iraqiyah coalition won the most seats in last March's elections but was unable to put together enough support in parliament to secure the post of prime minister. Allawi was offered to head a new National Security Council as part of the power-sharing deal that defines the new cabinet.
Although Iraqi officials had expected Biden to also meet with Kurdish President Massud Barzani today, there was no immediate confirmation from the White House of such a meeting.
Iraqi officials suggested Biden's talks today included the issue of who might be named to three critical security ministry posts that have yet to be announced -- the defense minister, the interior minister, and the national security minister. They say the issue of whether to keep some U.S. forces in Iraq beyond December 31, 2011, also was expected to be on the agenda.
Under a security agreement between Washington and Baghdad, all U.S. troops are meant to leave Iraq by the end of this year. But Iraq's top military commander has said U.S. troops should stay until Iraq's security forces can defend the country's borders, which he said could take until 2020.
"I relate [this visit] to the incomplete formation of the Iraqi government -- especially the ministries responsible for security," said Shakir Kitab, a spokesman for Al-Iraqiyah. "I think the Americans want to get assurances about security in Iraq so they can continue their withdrawal according to the security agreement between Baghdad and Washington. I think the Americans want to see the Iraqi government fully formed."
Maliki, under pressure from hard-line Shi'ite Muslims, has signaled that he wants U.S. forces to leave on schedule at the end of 2011.
Last week, the influential and anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr returned to Iraq after nearly four years of exile, in part to insist that the U.S. "occupiers" must leave on time or face retribution among his followers "by all the means of resistance."
Al-Sadr, who headed one of Iraq's Shi'ite militias blamed for deadly attacks on U.S. troops, met on January 12 with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, one of Iraq's holiest Shi'ite cities, in a step to gain credibility among the nation's clerics and in its political circles. Aides to both men refused to discuss further details of their meeting.
Both Washington and Baghdad had previously refused to discuss publicly any possibility of U.S. troops staying until after Iraq installed its new government.
U.S. President Barack Obama's administration maintains that U.S. troops will leave Iraq on schedule unless Iraq's officials ask Washington reconsider the security agreement and allow at least some troops to stay.
Biden's last visit to Baghdad was in September when he attended a military ceremony marking the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq.
Just under 50,000 U.S. soldiers now remain in Iraq to assist with training and Iraqi-led security operations after the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops, the lowest level since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Some 144,000 U.S. troops were in Iraq in January 2009, when Obama and Biden took office.
U.S. military leaders have said privately they need to start planning by early spring on how to get the remaining U.S. troops home by year end.
Meanwhile, highlighting Iraq's ongoing security concerns, Baghdad police say militant bombers attacked three mosques in the capital -- two Sunni and one Shii'te -- on the morning of Biden's arrival.
Two people were killed and 11 were wounded by the blasts, which were outside the fortified Green Zone that houses the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government offices where Biden's meetings are taking place.
compiled from agency reports and contributions from Radio Free Iraq's Simira Balay