MIDDLE EAST NEWS NOV 30 2011 Biden Visits Iraq as U.S. Role Shifts Itinerary in
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    MIDDLE EAST NEWS NOV 30 2011 Biden Visits Iraq as U.S. Role Shifts Itinerary in



    BAGHDAD—Vice President Joe Biden arrived unannounced in Iraq on Tuesday to mark the end of a controversial chapter of American history and the beginning of what the Obama administration hopes is a new partnership with the country after nearly nine years of war.

    Vice President Joe Biden disembarked in Baghdad on Tuesday.

    Mr. Biden's visit is poised to be rich in symbolism and emotion as he meets with Iraqi leaders and pays homage to U.S. troops, the last of which are preparing to return home by the end of the year. Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the Iraq war has claimed more than 4,400 American lives, left some 32,000 service members injured, and cost U.S. taxpayers more than $800 billion.

    Now, the Obama administration is seeking to shift U.S.-Iraqi relations away from an emphasis on security and defense and toward cultural and commercial exchanges.

    But the absence of an American military presence will accentuate U.S. concerns over stability in Iraq and the influence of neighboring Iran. Part of Mr. Biden's time here will be spent seeking reassurances from Iraqi officials on these fronts. Mr. Biden will be the most senior U.S. official to visit the country before the last American troops depart next month.

    "It's good to be back for this purpose," he said, arriving at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, where he received a briefing from Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top commander in Iraq, and James Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador. This is the seventh trip to Iraq for the vice president, who has been President Barack Obama's leading emissary to Iraq.

    While here, Mr. BIden will hold an event with U.S. and Iraqi forces, meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and lead a meeting of the Higher Coordinating Committee of the Strategic Framework Agreement, a body that was launched to examine the nonsecurity aspects of the U.S.-Iraqi relationship. Boosting Iraqi oil production is an ongoing part of U.S.-Iraqi discussions.

    Many U.S. officials, particularly those in the military, see Iraq at a turning point: deciding between an alliance with America and its Arab allies in the region, or closer ties with Iran.

    U.S. officials are trying to convince their Persian Gulf allies to pursue closer ties with Iraq, in what some refer to as the Arab crescent to Iraq's west and south, formed by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and others. To the east lies Iran.

    "If you can bring Iraq into the Arab crescent, we can reduce friction, and the anxiety, and the question marks," said a military official.

    But Iran likely will continue to press Iraq for closer ties, officials said, working to build political movements that take direction from Tehran. "They have been very active in Iraq," said an intelligence official. "They were attempting to influence the government in any way they could to take positions favorable to Iranian objectives and they were sponsoring Shiite-backed militias who were engaged in anticoalition activities."

    Iran has denied backing militias in Iraq or trying to influence the Baghdad government.

    Iraq already has taken the same side as Iran on a number of key issues in recent months. Over the weekend, Iraq refused to join other Arab League members in new sanctions against Iranian ally Syria.

    Iraqi officials also joined Iran in criticizing the deployment of Saudi troops to Bahrain to tamp down an uprising there, and sided with Tehran against Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations in opposing oil production increases.

    U.S. intelligence officials say they believe Iran has a long-term plan to exert influence over Iraq. Some believe Tehran intends to work with existing political movements such as that led by the anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, while building up other proxies and groups akin to Lebanon's Hezbollah.

    "As the U.S. pulls out we will see a continuation of these influence efforts. They want Iraq to take positions in line with Iranian interests and against U.S. interests," said another intelligence official.

    About 13,000 troops were still in Iraq as of Tuesday, a sliver of the 171,000 troops stationed there at the height of the war in 2007.

    After visiting Iraq, Mr. Biden will fly to Turkey, where he will continue the administration's diplomatic efforts to blunt the influence of Iran in the region.

    The U.S has been particularly pleased with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's position on Syria, an ally of Iran.

    "It's hard to think of an international issue where we don't have close cooperation or collaboration or consultation, at the very least, with Turkey, and there's a lot on the agenda right now," Tony Blinken, Mr. Biden's national security adviser, told reporters on Monday.

    Mr. Biden is scheduled to meet with Mr. Erdogan and Turkish President Abdullah Gul in Ankara. Administration officials said Mr. Biden and Mr. Erdogan will discuss Iran, Syria, Israel, the militant Kurdistan Workers' Party and other issues. The vice president will then travel to Istanbul to attend a Global Entrepreneurship Summit, an effort to strengthen economic ties between the U.S. and Arab nations that Mr. Obama started last year.

    Mr. Biden then continues on to Greece to hold the Obama administration's first meeting on the debt crisis with Prime Minister Lucas Papademos. Mr. Biden will also meet with the president of Greece and the heads of both transitional parties. Administration officials said he will express U.S. support for the current European debt plan.

    —Jay Solomon and Sam Dagher contributed to this article.
    Write to Carol E. Lee at carol.lee@wsj.com
    Last edited by Mona Lisa; 11-30-2011 at 07:53 AM.
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