Irak — U.S. on Track to End Combat Mission in Iraq, Officials Say

BAGHDAD — The Unit­ed States in on track or ahead of sched­ule to end its com­bat mis­sion in Iraq this sum­mer, and the lack of a per­ma­nent gov­ern­ment there will not serve as a deter­rent to that plan, senior admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials trav­el­ing with Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Biden said today.

But, an offi­cial speak­ing on back­ground said, “we would like to see — the Iraqi peo­ple would like to see — a gov­ern­ment as expe­di­tious­ly as pos­si­ble.” Polit­i­cal maneu­ver­ing has con­tin­ued since Iraq’s March elec­tion, and a per­ma­nent gov­ern­ment has yet to be seat­ed.

The vice pres­i­dent is in Iraq this week­end for a dual pur­pose: to meet with U.S. troops for the Fourth of July hol­i­day and to meet with senior Iraqi lead­er­ship lead­ing the gov­ern­ment or play­ing a part in the for­ma­tion of the next one, the offi­cial said.

The vice pres­i­dent today met with Ad Melk­ert, the Unit­ed Nations sec­re­tary general’s spe­cial rep­re­sen­ta­tive for Iraq, fol­lowed by a meet­ing with Army Gen. Ray­mond T. Odier­no, com­man­der of U.S. Forces Iraq, and U.S. Ambas­sador to Iraq Christo­pher Hill. Biden spoke to reporters at the start of his meet­ing with Odier­no and Hill.

“I remain, as I have from the begin­ning, extreme­ly opti­mistic about a gov­ern­ment being formed here that will be rep­re­sen­ta­tive — rep­re­sent all of the par­ties,” he said.

Mean­while, a care­tak­er gov­ern­ment is in place that’s pro­vid­ing secu­ri­ty and tak­ing care of Iraqis’ basic needs, the offi­cial said. But whether Iraq has a care­tak­er or per­ma­nent gov­ern­ment, the Unit­ed States is still on track to end its com­bat mis­sion in Iraq, he added.

The Unit­ed States is mov­ing from a pri­mar­i­ly mil­i­tary mis­sion to a civil­ian, diplo­mat­ic and eco­nom­ic mis­sion as the mil­i­tary pres­ence in Iraq ramps down, he said. As of today, about 82,000 U.S. ser­vice­mem­bers are serv­ing in Iraq, down from 165,000 at the height of the surge in 2008. The num­ber will drop to 50,000 by the end of the sum­mer in accor­dance with the U.S.-Iraqi secu­ri­ty agree­ment, and the troops will remain in an “advise-and-assist” role. The agree­ment also calls for all U.S. troops to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. But this change won’t come overnight, the offi­cial stressed.

“We’re not flip­ping a light switch on Aug. 31,” he said. “The com­bat mis­sion will be end­ing; the pres­ence of com­bat troops will not. We’ll still have a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of troops there with com­bat capa­bil­i­ty.”

Much of the tran­si­tion from a com­bat mis­sion to an advise-and-assist mis­sion already has tak­en place, the offi­cial not­ed. Iraqis have been in the lead since U.S. ser­vice­mem­bers pulled out of Iraqi cities last year, he said.

Odier­no has said he has “absolute con­fi­dence” in the plan, the offi­cial said. The Unit­ed States is mov­ing troops out on sched­ule, and is ahead of sched­ule in terms of mov­ing equip­ment out of Iraq. Odier­no also has con­fi­dence in Iraqi secu­ri­ty forces, anoth­er offi­cial added.

In fact, the lev­el of attacks is over­all at “his­toric lows,” the offi­cial said. Iraq car­ried out its elec­tion with its own secu­ri­ty forces in the lead in pro­vid­ing secu­ri­ty, he not­ed as an exam­ple. And senior al-Qai­da in Iraq lead­ers either were killed or cap­tured in recent months, with Iraqi forces in the lead act­ing on intel­li­gence devel­oped by the Iraqis.

“The No. 1, 2, 3 and 4 — depend­ing on how you count — senior mem­bers of al-Qai­da in Iraq have all been tak­en off the field by the Iraqis,” he said.

The offi­cial also not­ed a “tremen­dous change” on the ground in Iraq. Peo­ple are gath­er­ing, restau­rants are open­ing and there’s a gen­er­al increase in activ­i­ty, he said.

The offi­cial said he’s seen reports that the Unit­ed States is “not focused or dis­en­gaged” from Iraq. “Noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth,” he said. The nation isn’t dis­en­gag­ing, but the nature of the engage­ment is chang­ing, he explained.

“We’re real­ly see­ing the re-emer­gence of Iraq,” he said. “Vir­tu­al­ly every time there’s been a road­block … the Iraqis have found a way. It has­n’t always been easy, its tak­en time, but using the polit­i­cal process, Iraqis have found a way.”

While in Iraq, Biden will under­score the nation’s ongo­ing com­mit­ment to Iraq and will lis­ten and offer advice to lead­er­ship, but only if asked, the offi­cial said.

This is Biden’s fourth vis­it to Iraq since he took office, and the first for his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, who accom­pa­nied her hus­band on the trip.

Tomor­row, the Bidens will attend a nat­u­ral­iza­tion cer­e­mo­ny for U.S. troops, fol­lowed by meet­ings with U.S. troops and senior Iraqi offi­cials.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)