U.S. to end it’s tour in Iraq

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Vice President Biden was to sit down with Iraq’s political leaders today to mark the end of the American combat mission and to encourage Iraq to end a political impasse and form a new government.

The United States will formally mark the transition this week from combat to a mission primarily focused on helping Iraqi troops handle security for themselves. Biden assured the Iraqis shortly after his arrival Monday that the transition would be smooth.

“We’re going to be just fine. They’re going to be just fine,” Biden said at the U.S. Embassy.

Fewer than 50,000 U.S. forces remain in Iraq, down from a peak of more than 160,000 in 2007. All American forces are to be out of Iraq by the end of next year.

U.S. officials emphasize that the transition has been an ongoing process.

“We’re not flipping a switch this week,” said Tony Blinken, Biden’s national security adviser. “The president and this administration are making good on our commitment to end the war in Iraq responsibly and to help build a stable, self-reliant and sovereign Iraq.”

But the political uncertainty here has underscored some of the risks. Iraq’s politicians have yet to form a government nearly six months after inconclusive parliamentary elections.

Insurgents launched a series of attacks last week as the formal transition deadline neared, worrying Iraqis.

“I don’t support the U.S. troops’ withdrawal for the time being,” Baghdad resident Samira Gorgess said. “Iraq is still in need of U.S. forces as the security situation in Iraq is still unstable.”

Blinken said Iraq’s caretaker government has been able to keep basic services running, but a new government is needed to tackle more fundamental issues, such as constitutional changes and formulas to distribute energy revenue.

“The vice president is going to urge the leaders to bring this process to a conclusion,” Blinken told reporters.

Biden will meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani and other government officials, according to a White House statement. He will also meet with Ayad Allawi, al-Maliki’s chief rival in March elections.

Biden will also emphasize to Iraqi leaders that the change in mission does not mean the United States is disengaging from Iraq. He said the United States would step up diplomatic, cultural and economic ties as the military withdraws.

General Dubik says any request for U.S. troops to stay beyond 2011 must come from Iraqi leaders.  And he and other experts note that can’t happen until Iraq forms a new government. “The Iraqi government will have to form.  They’ll have to recognize that our legal standing for being in Iraq ends in 2011, and should they want our help they’ll have to ask and the governments will have to negotiate some satisfactory arrangement,” he stated.

As U.S. combat troops exit and bomb blasts ring out across the country, Iraqi leaders face even more pressure to form a new government — some five months after the elections.  For those feuding politicians, Tuesday’s formal handover will be yet another reminder that their country’s future is in their hands.

The U.S. and Iraq will mark the transition in a Wednesday ceremony.

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