Biden visits Iraq to help bolster fight against ISIS; He seeks to persuade officials to put the nation above sectarian interests

Biden visits Iraq to help bolster fight against ISIS; He seeks to persuade officials to put the nation above sectarian interests

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The vice president was to urge senior Iraqi officials to put their nation’s interests above sectarian, regional or personal ones.

In an unannounced visit shrouded in secrecy, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. came to Iraq on Thursday for the first time in almost five years, in the hopes that he can help a weak prime minister and bolster the military campaign against the Islamic State.

But the intense security concerns and the clandestine nature of the trip demonstrated the challenges this country still faces 13 years after the United States-led invasion. And while the visit has been under discussion for months, Mr. Biden arrived as the country’s political leadership is mired in yet another crisis.

Mr. Biden planned to meet with top Iraqi officials to urge them to put their nation’s interests above sectarian, regional or personal ones as the country confronts a military threat from Islamic State militants, an economic crisis resulting from low oil prices and a political stalemate between Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi and Parliament over Mr. Abadi’s efforts to reconstitute his cabinet.

Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry also made unannounced visits to Iraq this month.

At a news conference last week in Saudi Arabia, President Obama said American officials had been telling their Iraqi counterparts that “they have to take the long view and think about the well- being of the country at a time when they’re still fighting” the Islamic State.

“Now is not the time for government gridlock or bickering,” he said.

Mr. Biden last visited Iraq in November 2011, just weeks before the last American troops in Iraq were scheduled to leave. In a solemn ceremony, Mr. Biden saluted Iraqi troops, trained and equipped with billions of dollars from the United States, saying he hoped that they would safeguard the country.

Three years later, those forces disintegrated in the face of an onslaught from Islamic State fighters and the inability of a corrupt central government to support and supply them.

The United States has added back nearly 5,000 troops in Iraq, and it is using airstrikes and providing logistical support to bolster the country’s slow campaign against the Islamic State, which still occupies large stretches of territory.

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, led Mr. Abadi to withdraw forces from the fight against the Islamic State to bolster security in Baghdad. The protests ended up being peaceful, and the troops were sent back to the front lines.

In a speech a year ago at the National Defense University, Mr. Biden hailed Iraq’s political class as having rallied from defeats to create a strong and united government. “Iraqi leaders can’t afford to lose that sense of political urgency that brought them to this point,” Mr. Biden said.

Since then, the political situation in Iraq has become so fluid that Mr. Biden’s team was at times uncertain whether some officials on his meeting schedule would still be in office when he arrived.

Even the recent gains in security have resolved little of Iraq’s deep-seated woes, as hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians have been unable to return to recaptured territory and deadly sectarian and tribal rivalries that fed the conflict in those areas remain largely unresolved.

Iraq will need billions in aid to help reconstruct regions shattered by warfare, but American officials fear that such aid will not be forthcoming until donor countries perceive that Iraq’s politics are more settled.

And as the military campaign approaches Mosul, a multiethnic and multisectarian city, delicate negotiations between Kurdish forces in the semiautonomous north and those of the central government will be needed to determine who does what, American officials said.

Retaking Mosul by the end of the year is a goal of President Obama’s, although in a recent interview he did not say when he expected that to happen. In his talks with officials, Mr. Biden is expected to urge all sides in Iraq to unite behind a single plan to retake Mosul.

 

This article was written by Gardiner Harris from International New York Times and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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