BAGHDAD (AP) — Vice President Joe Biden's Iraq trip ahead of the U.S. military pullout is designed to solidify ties between Iraq and the United States, but already protests in Iraq against his visit are demonstrating the difficulties the relationship will face.
Biden arrived Tuesday in a surprise visit to Iraq at a pivotal time as the last of the American troops withdraw, and the U.S. must establish a new relationship with a country that is home to billions of barrels of oil and more closely aligned with neighboring Iran than the U.S. would like.
"In one month, our troops will have left Iraq and our strategic, close partnership, God willing, will continue, it will not continue in Iraq for Iraq but in this region," Biden said in a statement to reporters ahead of meetings with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
"Our troops are leaving Iraq, and we are working on a new path together, a new face of this partnership," he added. "This is marking a new beginning of the relationship that will not only benefit the United States of America and Iraq. I believe it will benefit the region and will benefit the world."
The White House said Biden is expected to meet with Iraqi officials including President Jalal Talabani and Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi during what is his eighth visit to Iraq since being elected.
The White House said he is also to take part in a ceremony commemorating the sacrifices of U.S. and Iraqi troops during the eight-year war.
But he will almost certainly not be meeting with some of al-Maliki's key allies, government leaders loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Al-Maliki is navigating a tough position of trying to maintain a relationship with the U.S., from whom Iraq is buying billions of dollars in weapons in the coming years, and al-Sadr, whose backing last year ensured al-Maliki a second term.
Followers of al-Sadr rallied in Basra and Baghdad on Wednesday, chanting "Biden get out of Iraq," and "No to America."
Baghdad and Washington failed earlier this year to come to an agreement on keeping a small American military presence in Iraq next year, meaning all U.S. forces must be out of the country by Dec. 31. Some 13,000 U.S. troops remain, down from a one-time high of about 170,000.