Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Iraq yesterday for meetings with Iraqi leaders and U.S. commanders. His visit comes just after most U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq’s cities and towns June 30, step one in a U.S.-Iraq pact that will have all American troops out of Iraq by the end of 2011.

Despite a significant decline in violence in Iraq in recent months, the two weeks leading up to the U.S. pullback were marked by a series of suicide bombings and other attacks, particularly in Baghdad. At least 447 Iraqi civilians were killed in June, double the toll from the previous month, according to an Associated Press tally.

The White House says President Obama has given Biden a new assignment focusing on Iraq, aiming to ensure that conditions there enable the U.S. to stick with its commitment to complete a withdrawal from Iraq as set forth in the U.S.-Iraq agreement.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that Obama’s aim is bring high-level attention to the work that “has to be done to get our troops back.” Gibbs said Biden was tasked with pressing for political reconciliation and social measures in Iraq as essential to “ensure we are making continued progress.”

Biden will work with Iraqis ‘toward overcoming their political differences and achieving the type of reconciliation that we all understand has yet to fully take place but needs to take place,’ Gibbs said.

Biden will reiterate the U.S. commitment to stick to the withdrawal plan, the White House said.

During his three-day visit, Biden will meet with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki is being criticized by a number of political trends in Iraq for failing to promote reconciliation among Iraq’s fractured political, ethnic and religious forces, and for failing to act to improve economic conditions for the people.

Biden’s visit is the longest by a senior U.S. elected official in some time. Previous visits by top officials have been in and out within one day. It is Biden’s first trip to Iraq as vice president. But he previously made several trips to Iraq and met many of its leaders as a senator and chair of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Gibbs said an idea once put forward by Biden — dividing Iraq’s Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities into a federation of three autonomous zones — was not on the table for the Obama administration. Iraqis of all persuasions have resoundingly rejected the idea.

Greeting Biden on his arrival in Baghdad, Wathad Shaqir, chief of the Iraqi Parliament’s national reconciliation committee, told Iraqi state television, ‘I believe he has brought some suggestions regarding the reconciliation project.’ Shaqir noted that he was happy that Biden’s three-zone federation idea had been abandoned.

‘We are looking forward to a new page,’ he added.

One key problem in the reconciliation effort is reintegration of Iraqis who joined the Baath Party under Saddam Hussein but who want to participate in political life, while at the same time weeding out those ex-Baathists who committed crimes against the Iraqi people and those who continue to fan violence in hopes of regaining power.

Another major problem is conflict between Iraqi Kurds and Arabs over the multi-ethnic northern city of Kirkuk, with important oil resource. Major Kurdish groups insist the city is part of the autonomous Kurdish region. Although the city was historically mainly Kurdish, it now has significant non-Kurdish population who object to that plan. Many of the non-Kurdish residents were deliberately resettled there by Saddam Hussein, but they have since struck roots and want to maintain their ethnic identities. Other political elements with their own agendas are helping to keep the pot boiling.

Adding fuel to those conflicts is the abysmal state of the Iraqi economy, with massive unemployment and poverty following more than a decade of sanctions, war and sectarian violence, and widespread corruption including at national and local government levels — some of it fueled by the corrupt operations of U.S. government and private contractors since the 2003 invasion.

All of these factors appear to be on the Obama administration’s mind, as the president seems intent on extricating the U.S. military from Iraq.

Obama’s high-profile assignment of the vice president to focus on Iraq is in line with a foreign policy approach projected by some influential Washington circles. A new report from the well-connected Center for a New American Security, and highlighted by the Council on Foreign Relations, argues for a new path to advance what these circles consider to be U.S. strategic interests in Iraq.

The report, titled says, “It is time for America to take the long view. Neither Iraq nor America’s stake in a stable, peaceful, secure Middle East will vanish when the last American combat brigade departs. American policymakers must advance U.S. interests in Iraq and the Middle East through a long-term, low-profile engagement to help resolve Iraq’s internal challenges, strengthen its government and economic institutions, and integrate it as a constructive partner in the region.”

The center counts among its directors and advisors former Clinton Secretary of State Madeline Albright, Bush Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and figures connected to the military, military industry and think tanks.

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Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more. Previously she taught English as a second language and did a variety of other jobs to pay the bills. She has lived in six states, and is all about motherhood, art, nature and apple pie.