Biden in Iraq to thank troops, begin dialogue

Vice President Joe Biden was greeted upon his arrival in Baghdad on Tuesday by Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander in Iraq (left), and by James Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. The trip to Iraq was Biden’s eighth as vice president.

WASHINGTON -- Vice President Joe Biden arrived Tuesday in Iraq for a surprise visit aimed at touting the administration's promise to end the war, and also to thank U.S. and Iraqi troops and to start talks on a "new phase" in U.S.-Iraqi relations.

The White House cast Biden's unannounced visit -- just over two weeks before the last U.S. forces are scheduled to leave the country -- as a chance to highlight President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign promise to wind down the war in Iraq.

The administration said Biden would "commemorate the sacrifices and accomplishments of U.S. and Iraqi troops" as well as meet with Iraqi officials as the U.S. begins a "new phase" of cooperation with the country on a wide range of issues.

The visit is Biden's eighth to Iraq since becoming vice president.

"It's good to be back for this purpose," said Biden. At the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, which was decorated for Christmas, he met with Ambassador James Jeffrey and Gen. Lloyd Austin, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.

Biden, who was last in Iraq in January, noted that Austin kidded him that he's now eligible for Iraqi citizenship.

White House spokesman Jay Carney called Biden's visit the fulfillment of a promise "where we are withdrawing the remaining U.S. forces from Iraq and we are ending that war responsibly and giving the Iraqi people the chance for a better future that they deserve and also maintaining an important strategic relationship with Iraq."

While there, Biden will co-chair a meeting of the U.S.-Iraq Higher Coordinating Committee and meet with Iraqi leaders, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani and Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi.

Republicans on the campaign trail and in Congress have criticized Obama for withdrawing all U.S. troops from Iraq and failing to secure an agreement with al-Maliki to keep some U.S. forces in the country to help assure that it remains relatively stable.