U.S. Vice President Joe Biden made a surprise visit to Iraq on Thursday, the first in nearly five years, in an effort to bolster the American-led coalition fight against the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL).
According to the New York Times (NYT), “The intense security and clandestine nature of the trip reflected the challenges Iraq still faces 13 years after the United States-led invasion. Mr. Biden arrived for the visit, which was under discussion for months, at a moment when the country’s political leadership is mired in yet another crisis.”
“Mr. Biden planned to urge the Iraqis to put the good of their nation above sectarian, regional or personal interests as the country confronts a constellation of threats: militarily, from the extremists of the Islamic State; economically, from low oil prices; and politically, from the stalemate between Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Parliament over Mr. Abadi’s efforts to reconstitute his cabinet,” it adds.
Biden reportedly met with Iraqi PM Abadi after arriving at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad by helicopter.
Unnamed senior administration officials who briefed reporters on the vice president’s trip painted a rosier picture.
“In the last few days, things have trended in a more stabilizing direction,” the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) quoted one official as saying. “So it’s actually a good time to be here.
The Journal noted that the Obama administration believes stability in Iraq is essential to the battle against ISIS.
“Mr. Abadi has faced significant resistance in his attempts to appoint a cabinet to fulfill pledges to introduce political reforms and combat corruption,” it reports. “The move has stoked sectarian divides and prompted his opponents to call for his resignation.”
“The White House sees the stability of the government in Baghdad as critical to the fight against Islamic State, especially as U.S.-backed Iraqi forces are preparing for an eventual assault on Mosul,” adds the Journal.
Biden also met with Masoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), in Erbil.
“Mr. Barzani has spoken openly about holding an independence referendum, something Obama administration officials have told him needs to be delayed,” notes the Times. “Mr. Barzani is a crucial player in the military campaign to retake Mosul from the Islamic State.”
The last time Biden visited Iraq was in November 2011, weeks before the last U.S. troops in Iraq were scheduled to withdraw from the country.
“In a solemn ceremony, Mr. Biden saluted Iraqi troops, trained and equipped with billions of dollars from the United States, saying he hoped they would safeguard the country,” reports NYT.
The Obama administration has deployed nearly 5,000 American troops back to Iraq, using airstrikes and logistical support to bolster the Iraqi security forces’ slow offensive against ISIS, which still controls large swathes of territory in the region.
The Times reports:
While the military campaign is showing signs of progress, American officials fear that renewed political turmoil in the country could hinder it. In one example, enormous street protests led by Moktada al-Sadr, a radical Shiite cleric, prompted Mr. Abadi to withdraw troops from the fight against the Islamic State to bolster security in Baghdad. The protests turned out to be peaceful, and the troops were returned to the front lines afterward. But American officials said the episode showed how political turmoil could be a troubling distraction.