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US Vice President Biden on surprise visit to Iraq

By AFP - Apr 28,2016 - Last updated at Apr 28,2016

A handout picture released by the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi’s office on Thursday shows Abadi (right) shaking hands with US Vice President Joe Biden following a meeting in Baghdad (AFP photo)

BAGHDAD — US Vice President Joe Biden held talks in Baghdad Thursday during an unannounced visit to Iraq, whose leadership has been locked in a protracted political crisis even as its forces battle extremists.

"The vice president has arrived in Iraq for meetings with [the] Iraqi leadership focused on encouraging Iraqi national unity and continued momentum in the fight against ISIL [Daesh]," his office said.

Biden met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi shortly after stepping off the C-17 military transport plane that flew him to Baghdad.

Abadi and Biden discussed political, security and economic developments, the premier's office said.

Biden's visit comes at a time of political crisis that has seen Iraq's fractious political class squabble over Abadi's efforts to replace the current government of party-affiliated ministers with a Cabinet of technocrats.

Political turmoil surrounding Abadi's US-backed reform drive has sparked chaos in parliament, with lawmakers brawling in the chamber, staging a sit-in and throwing water bottles towards the premier.

Thousands of supporters of prominent Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr have also protested in recent days outside the fortified “Green Zone” — where Biden and Abadi met Thursday — ostensibly to lend mass support to the reform process.

The political shambles has further discredited politicians who are widely seen as corrupt and pursuing only the interests of their parties, clans or sects.

 

Praise for Abadi 

 

A US administration official travelling with Biden praised Abadi, whom many, including within his own party, have criticised as a weak leader.

He said that Abadi “has been a very effective prime minister. He’s really pulled the country together.”

“The vice president will also be discussing steps the international community can take to promote Iraq’s economic stability and further regional cooperation,” the statement from Biden’s office said.

Baghdad is grappling with a damaging budget crunch, caused largely by the drop in the price of oil, which accounts for more than 90 per cent of Iraq’s revenue.

The United States heads an international coalition of countries providing Iraq with arms, military training and a limited number of combat forces to help it battle Daesh, which overran large areas in 2014.

US forces have in recent weeks further deepened their involvement by setting up a base south of Mosul, which is Iraq’s second city and the extremists’ main hub in the country.

The US official said Biden would not venture a timetable for a much-anticipated offensive on Mosul, which is likely to involve a myriad different — and sometimes competing — forces.

“We have to be realistic. We are at the end of April. Once we get into July and August, it starts to get pretty hot in Iraq and things start to slow down,” the US official said, suggesting a big push on Mosul was still months away.

 

Mosul plan 

 

Abadi vowed in February that Daesh in Iraq would be fully defeated by the end of the year.

“It’s very important that the Iraqis decide on a clear plan for what forces are going to take Mosul, under what arrangements so that everyone is clear about the circumstances that will lead up to liberation and set the conditions for the day after,” the US official said.

“What you don’t want is a race to Mosul from a bunch of different forces that end up getting in each other’s way or clashing with each other,” the official said.

Biden’s visit is the highest-ranking by a US official to Iraq since he travelled to Iraq in 2011.

With the US election campaign in full swing and President Barack Obama due to leave office having served two terms, Biden’s visit is also likely to be his last to Iraq as vice president.

“The vice president has been the point person on Iraq for the administration since the beginning,” the US official told reporters on Biden’s plane.

“He’s been itching to get back for a while — looking for an opportunity. This seemed like a good moment to do it,” the official said.

 

Biden also met parliament speaker Salim Al Juburi but the White House did not immediately disclose his full programme in Iraq.

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