Biden in Iraq to mark end of U.S. combat mission

Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Baghdad on Monday to mark the formal conclusion of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq and to urge Iraqi leaders to accelerate talks toward forming a new government, the White House said.

During his 48-hour visit, Biden will preside over ceremonies Wednesday marking the shift in mission from combat to what the military calls “advise and assist,” along with the official change in the name of the mission from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn.

The number of U.S. troops has already fallen below the 50,000 level promised by President Obama when he took office, from a peak of 166,000, and the ceremonies will cement an existing trend toward a reduced U.S. military role in Iraq.

The ceremonies will be preceded by a major address to the nation Tuesday by Obama, who is expected to cite the troop drawdown and mission shift as the fulfillment of one of his most significant election campaign pledges.

Many Iraqis have expressed concern that the troop drawdown comes at an extremely precarious time for their country, with Iraqi political leaders still unable to reach agreement on a new government nearly six months after national elections in March.

Biden’s national security advisor, Antony Blinken, said the vice president planned to press Iraqis to hasten the formation of the government. Though the six-month delay has not yet resulted in a serious political or security vacuum, “this is not a durable situation,” he told reporters in Baghdad.

Whether the U.S. will be able to exert the influence it once wielded over Iraqi leaders now that it is playing a significantly reduced military role is unclear.

The level of U.S. influence has “gone down a lot,” said Kurdish legislator Mahmoud Othman. “Neither are the Americans very much concerned about Iraq nor are Iraqis listening very much to the Americans.”

Biden will seek to reassure Iraqi leaders that the U.S. is not abandoning their country but rather shifting the nature of the relationship toward a long-term partnership focused on economic, political and cultural cooperation, Blinken said.

But for that to happen, Iraqi leaders must first agree on a new government, he said. “To build a partnership, we need a partner.”