BAGHDAD – Vice President Joe Biden said Wednesday that his trip to Baghdad ahead of the U.S. military pullout marks a new beginning 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."
Sitting next to Biden, al-Maliki said the meetings Wednesday were designed to lay the ground for future cooperation and partnership.
"We've passed a very difficult page of confronting al-Qaida and terrorism in Iraq during which we achieved joint success ... We made many sacrifices from both sides," al-Maliki said.
"Iraq's and the United States of America's ambitions are to succeed in this relationship," al-Maliki said.
Alluding to the turmoil going on in the Middle East, al-Maliki also said the region is "sensitive" and that as changes occur, there should be cooperation between the U.S. and Iraq.
One area in which Baghdad and Washington have been on different sides of the argument is Syria. While Washington has harshly criticized Syrian President Bashar Assad's bloody crackdown that has killed more than 3,500 people so far, Baghdad has taken a more conservative approach and not supported Arab League sanctions against its western neighbor.
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.
The U.S. will still have a massive presence here, including the largest embassy in the world and offices in the northern cities of Irbil and Kirkuk and the southern oil city of Basra.
An official in al-Maliki's office said the prime minister and vice president will discuss the issue of U.S. training help for the nascent Iraqi security forces and set the outlines of al-Maliki's visit to Washington on Dec. 12.
The official did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Security was tight for Biden's visit, which was not announced ahead of time.
In the week leading up to the vice president's trip, Iraq has seen an uptick in violence that has renewed concerns about the abilities of the country's security forces.
A suicide bomber slammed a car packed with explosives into the gate of a prison north of Baghdad on Monday, killing at least 19 people. On Saturday a string of explosions killed 15 people. Three days earlier, a triple bombing in the southern city of Basra killed 19 people.
Many U.S. and Iraqi officials are concerned insurgents may use the transition period when American troops depart to launch more attacks in a bid to regain their former prominence and destabilize the country.