Vice President Joe Biden used a surprise visit to Iraq on Thursday to try to hasten efforts to quell a political rebellion that threatens to undercut the Obama administration's counterterrorism efforts here.
On his first visit to the country in five years and perhaps his last while in office, Biden met with Prime Minister Haider Abadi and other Iraqi leaders but focused less on military strategy than on a familiar challenge for a former seven-term senator: parliamentary politics.
The U.S.-backed Abadi won approval this week from the Iraqi parliament for a partial Cabinet shakeup amid public protests of corruption. President Obama said last week that he was "concerned" about Abadi's hold on power.
Biden's visit was intended to emphasize the importance of Iraqi national unity to sustain momentum in the campaign against the Islamic State and the sectarian divisions that the Sunni extremist group exploits, senior administration officials said. While Islamic State has seen its footprint diminish in Iraq by 40% since a stepped-up U.S.-led campaign against them, a key goal of the Abadi government – reclaiming the terrorists' de facto capital of Mosul – has stalled and he has faced increased pressure to deliver on political reforms.
"I'm very optimistic," Biden told reporters after meeting for more than 90 minutes with Abadi at the government palace and before a sit-down with the speaker of the Iraqi parliament at the U.S. Embassy in the heavily fortified Green Zone. Later, Biden flew north to Erbil to see Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani.
The ongoing violence in Iraq and neighboring Syria, where dozens were killed in a wave of airstrikes that appears to have punctured the cease-fire there, has underscored the difficulty for the Obama administration of winding down the U.S. presence in the Middle East. The rise of Islamic State and its seizure of territory in the two countries has revived the U.S. military role that Biden came to Iraq five years ago to mark the end of.
Biden called the progress being made in the fight against Islamic State "real," "serious" and "committed."
Abadi's role is crucial to the administration's Islamic State strategy, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told lawmakers Thursday in Washington. Corruption and sectarianism of the government of former Prime Minister Nouri Maliki hindered U.S. efforts to rebuild in Iraq, Carter said, adding that Abadi is different and must be supported "both politically and economically" by the U.S and its allies.
"It's our sense that if momentum is lost in the campaign, it's more likely to happen on the political side than the military side," said one senior official traveling with the vice president, who would not be named discussing details of the trip.
Biden's visit also appeared to have personal significance beyond the possibility he might not return while in office.
In remarks to U.S. Embassy staff and military personnel in Baghdad, he repeatedly referred to the service of his late son, Beau, in Iraq during the administration's early years. He recalled a conversation with an unnamed previous prime minister who expressed doubts about the U.S. commitment to his nation's security.
Biden said he responded: "Would you send your son to my state to defend me?"
"And he shut up," Biden added.
Biden's second son, Hunter, joined his father for the trip, saying he wanted to visit the country where his brother had served. In May, the family will mark the first anniversary of Beau's death from cancer.
The vice president's visit to Iraq was not disclosed prior to his arrival because of security concerns, and comes ahead of a previously announced visit to the Vatican on Friday to promote his cancer-fighting initiative.
During his meetings with Iraqi leaders, Biden relied on his long-standing relationships with many of them to be direct, saying he did not "come into their house" and dictate solutions even as he offered advice.
It's an approach Obama has counted on after giving Biden a lead role in the Iraq portfolio shortly after taking office. Biden's trip to Iraq was long planned, aides said, but was well-timed given the political "turbulence."
Abadi's Cabinet reshuffle put a temporary halt to calls from radical cleric Muqtada Sadr for mass protests against Iraqi leaders. Thousands demonstrated outside the Green Zone this week, demanding an end to the corruption that has been a hallmark of Iraqi government since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
On his own visit last week, Carter announced that the Pentagon was deploying 217 additional military advisors to Iraq, and making available attack helicopters to assist in a campaign to recapture Mosul. The number of U.S. troops in Iraq will now exceed 4,000, with additional personnel involved in what the military calls temporary deployments.
In addition to the new military advisors in Iraq, Obama announced this week that the U.S. would also deploy an additional 250 service members to support the campaign in Syria against Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL.
Obama, who campaigned in 2008 on ending the war in Iraq, has said he wants to put the Islamic State on a clear path to defeat in Mosul by the end of his administration, and officials said the new military assistance to the Iraqi Security Forces was aimed at making as much progress in the spring before any slowdown during the hot summer months.
In a speech in Germany on Monday, Obama also said he would press U.S. allies, particularly in Europe, to do more to bring about stability.
"We need more nations contributing to the air campaign. We need more nations contributing trainers to help build up local forces in Iraq. We need more nations to contribute economic assistance to Iraq so it can stabilize liberated areas and break the cycle of violent extremism so that ISIL cannot come back," he said.
Staff writers W.J. Hennigan and Christi Parsons in Washington contributed to this report.
2:19 p.m.: This story was updated with details of Biden's visit to Iraq.