Tuesday 22 May 2018

Biden cites 'serious' progress in defeating IS in Iraq

Joe Biden arrives in Baghdad, Iraq (AP)
Joe Biden arrives in Baghdad, Iraq (AP)

US vice-president Joe Biden has described progress towards defeating the Islamic State group in Iraq as "serious" and "committed", despite a crippling political crisis that threatens those gains.

On a visit to the country, Mr Biden met separately with PM Haider al-Abadi and parliament speaker Salim al-Jabouri.

He said he and Mr al-Abadi discussed "plans in store for Mosul and co-ordination going on with all of our friends here".

He said he is "very optimistic", and added that the leaders are "working very, very hard" to put together a new Iraqi cabinet.

Mr Biden is on his first trip to Iraq since 2011. He arrived in the capital Baghdad after a secret, overnight flight from Washington on a military plane.

He was greeted on the blistering hot tarmac by the US ambassador and Lt Gen Sean McFarland, the US commander leading the fight against IS.

His first stop was to meet with Mr al-Abadi at the late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's grandiose Republican Palace, which served as US headquarters in Baghdad after the 2003 invasion. They spoke in English as reporters were allowed in briefly for the start of the meeting.

The White House has not disclosed the rest of Mr Biden's itinerary, but said he would meet with other Iraqi leaders to stress national unity and discuss the campaign against IS extremists. Mr Biden also met with US personnel in Iraq.

The visit comes amid a wave of protests and demands for sweeping political reforms in Iraq that have paralysed a government already struggling with a dire economic crisis and IS.

The Obama administration has stepped up its military role with more troops and equipment in a bid to put Iraq on a better path as President Barack Obama prepares to leave office in January.

Though there has been progress in wresting back territory from IS and weakening its leadership, senior US officials travelling with Mr Biden said any lost momentum will likely be due to political unrest rather than military shortcomings.

Chaotic politics are not new in Iraq, but the present infighting risks becoming a distraction, with politicians more focused on keeping their jobs than fighting IS, said the officials.

The turmoil engulfing Iraq's government grew out of weeks of rallies by followers of influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr demanding an end to pervasive corruption and mismanagement.

Thousands have protested just outside Baghdad's heavily guarded Green Zone, calling for politicians to be replaced by independent technocrats and for Iraq's powerful Shiite militias to be brought into key ministries.

At the centre of the crisis is Mr al-Abadi, a Shiite whom the US considers a welcome improvement over his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki.

Yet Mr al-Abadi's failures to deliver on long-promised reforms and manage Iraq's growing sectarian tensions have threatened his ability to lead the country.

Mr Al-Abadi is caught between ordinary Iraqis pleading for government accountability and entrenched political blocks that are reluctant to give up a powerful patronage system widely blamed for squandering Iraq's oil fortunes.

On Tuesday, Iraq's parliament approved half a dozen new cabinet ministers Mr al-Abadi nominated in a gesture to protesters, but the rest of the cabinet line-up remains in contention.

The turbulence has roiled the Iraqi capital. Last month, Mr al-Abadi pulled troops fighting IS on the front lines to protect Baghdad amid the protests. An economic crisis spurred by collapsing oil prices has further compounded Iraq's troubles.

Mr Obama said in Saudi Arabia last week that Mr al-Abadi had been a "good partner", but expressed concern about his hold on power.

Mr Obama said it was critical that Iraq's government stabilises and competing factions unite so it can fight terrorism and right its economy.

"Now is not the time for government gridlock or bickering," Mr Obama said.

It was because of that bickering that Mr Obama emerged from a meeting with Gulf leaders without the promises of financial support for Iraq's reconstruction that he had sought. Gulf countries preferred to wait and see whether Iraq could get its political act together before agreeing to help.

Aiming to build on recent progress in retaking territory from IS, the US this month agreed to deploy more than 200 additional troops to Iraq, bringing the authorised total to just over 4,000, and to send Apache helicopters into the fight.

Although the White House has ruled out a ground combat role, Mr Obama's decision puts American forces closer to the front lines to train and support Iraqi forces preparing to try to take back Mosul.

US officials would not put a timeline on reclaiming Mosul but said they expect progress to slow during the summer.

For Mr Biden and Mr Obama, the next nine months represent their final opportunity to position Iraq for a peaceful future before their terms end.

Though they came into office pledging to end the war and did so in 2011, US troops returned to Iraq in 2014 amid the rise of IS.

Mr Obama now acknowledges that his goal of defeating the militants will not be realised during his presidency.

Press Association

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