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Vice President Joe Biden announced the beginning of a new American relationship with Iraq during a surprise visit to Baghdad. With only weeks remaining before American troops are scheduled to withdraw from the country, Biden’s pronouncement comes as sectarian tensions and violence threaten to tear Iraq apart.
Biden told reporters at a joint press conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that the exodus of the remaining 13,000 US troops from eight Iraqi bases at the end of December 2011 marked “a new beginning…that will not only benefit the United States of America and Iraq… it will benefit the region and will benefit the world.”
While Biden claimed the new US-Iraqi partnership would “bring stability to the region,” he acknowledged that America’s departure from Iraq would not remove “security concerns.” Nevertheless, Biden was “confident that [the Iraqi government] is fully capable of handling those internal security concerns.”
Unfortunately, Biden’s optimism isn’t equally shared by Iraqi Prime Minster Maliki or by American military commanders. While Maliki didn’t address Iraq’s security capabilities at the press conference, his feelings were best expressed days earlier when he said Iraq “remains in the circle of danger” due to rising sectarian violence.
For his part, General Lloyd Austin, the top American general in Iraq, said only a week before Biden arrived in Baghdad that the exodus of the remaining US troops would be followed by increased terrorist operations by al-Qaeda and other Sunni insurgent groups.
Austin’s assessment was echoed by Iraqi Interior Ministry official, Adnan al-Asadi, who said al-Qaeda and its affiliates have been given an opening to revive operations in former strongholds in Iraq’s northern and western provinces.
According to al-Asadi, “When the US withdrew from this triangle, which is Diyala, Salahuddin, Anbar and Mosul, a gap was left behind. Al-Qaeda has redeployed in the area.”
While Sunni-led al-Qaeda remains a serious threat to Iraqi stability, General Austin was also quick to point out that Iraq’s Shiite militias — all supplied with weapons, training and funding by Iran — were equally dangerous. According to Austin, the Shiite militias are “really focused on creating a Lebanese Hezbollah kind of organization in this country,” one that would be “a government within a government.”
In fact, at least three Shiite militias are reported to be active in Iraq, the most prominent being the Promised Day Brigade, which is under the control of anti-American Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr. Not surprisingly, followers of al-Sadr had greeted Biden’s Iraq visit by holding rallies in Baghdad and Basra, chanting, “Biden get out of Iraq” and “No to America.”
Unfortunately, the prospects of both al-Qaeda and Shiite militias ramping up their terrorist attacks once American troops leave is quite disconcerting given the record levels of violence both groups are currently inflicting upon the Iraqi populace.
According to Iraqi government figures, scores of suicide bombings and other attacks by Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias in October 2011 killed 258 Iraqi civilians and police — or about eight people a day — the highest death toll of the year.
November was also a deadly month, as Iraqis were witness to a suicide bombing at a military base in the Iraqi town of Taji that killed 25 civilians and soldiers; two suicide bombings at a marketplace in the southern city of Basra that killed 25 people; and a series of bombings in and around Baghdad that killed 13 people.
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