Vice President Joe Biden pressed Iraq on Thursday not to let its crippling political crisis upend hard-fought gains against the Islamic State group as he returned to the country that's come to symbolize America's relentless struggles in the Middle East.
Biden slipped into Baghdad on an unannounced trip, his first to Iraq in nearly five years. Officials said the stop was planned before Iraq's political system descended into turmoil, hindering U.S.-led efforts to defeat extremists who control parts of both Iraq and Syria. Sitting down with Iraq's beleaguered leaders, he praised them for working "very, very hard" to construct a new Cabinet and touted progress wresting back territory from ISIS.
"It's real, it's serious, and it's committed," Biden said as he met with Parliament Speaker Salim al-Jabouri, a Sunni politician facing calls from his colleagues to resign.
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Still, the anxious undertones of Biden's brief visit were clear from the moment he stepped off a military transport plane into blistering heat after an overnight flight from Washington. White House staffers donned body armor and helmets as Biden was whisked by helicopter to the relative safety of the heavily fortified Green Zone, reminders of the dire security situation even in Iraq's capital.
Biden's roughly eight-hour visit came amid a wave of tense protests and demands for sweeping political reforms that have paralyzed a government already struggling to tackle a dire economic crisis and battle IS. The United States has deployed more troops and equipment in hopes of putting Iraq on a better path as President Barack Obama prepares to leave office in January.
Though there's been progress in wresting back territory from ISIS and weakening its leadership, senior U.S. officials traveling with Biden said any lost momentum would likely be due to political unrest rather than military shortcomings. Chaotic politics are nothing new in Iraq, but the present infighting risks becoming a distraction, with politicians more focused on keeping their jobs than fighting IS, said the officials, who weren't authorized to speak on the record.
While Obama and Biden came into office pledging to end the war — and did so in 2011 — U.S. troops returned here in 2014 amid the rise of ISIS violence.
Obama now acknowledges that his goal of defeating the militants won't be realized during his presidency.
Still, this month Obama agreed to deploy more than 200 additional troops to Iraq, bringing the authorized total to just over 4,000, and to send Apache helicopters into the fight. Biden thanked some of those troops and American diplomats during a visit to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, where he alluded to the deep sectarian divides still plaguing Iraq long after U.S.-led forces toppled the late dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
"Think of all the places we are today trying to keep the peace, all the places we've sent you guys and women," Biden said. "They're places where because of history, we've drawn artificial lines, creating artificial states, made up of totally distinct ethnic, religious cultural groups and said, 'Have at it. Live together.'"
Biden, as a U.S. senator in 2006, proposed dividing Iraq into semi-autonomous regions for Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis. Though that plan wasn't adopted, the persistent strains among the groups that have flared recently in Iraq's government illustrate the difficulty in holding the country together.
The current round of turmoil grew out of weeks of rallies by followers of influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr demanding an end to pervasive corruption and mismanagement. Thousands have protested just outside Baghdad's Green Zone, calling for politicians to be replaced by independent technocrats and for Iraq's powerful Shiite militias to be brought into key ministries.
At the center of the crisis is Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite who met with Biden on Thursday at one of Saddam's grandiose former palaces. Long overdue to deliver on his promises for reform, Al-Abadi is caught between ordinary Iraqis pleading for government accountability and entrenched political blocks that are reluctant to give up a powerful patronage system.
Last month, al-Abadi pulled troops fighting ISIS on the front lines to protect Baghdad amid the protests, and other Arab nations have declined to provide Iraq more financial support until it gets its political act together. An economic crisis spurred by collapsing oil prices has further compounded Iraq's troubles.
Biden said he and al-Abadi discussed plans for retaking the key northern city of Mosul, an immense challenge for Iraqi forces and their U.S. backers. Biden said he was "very optimistic," though U.S. officials predict a long road ahead.
"If you think about it, the history of the region is a nightmare from which everyone is trying to awake," Biden said of Iraq and the Middle East, riffing on a passage from James Joyce's "Ulysses."
While in Iraq, Biden also stopped briefly in Irbil, the capital of Iraq's mostly autonomous northern Kurdish region, where he met with Kurdish President Massoud Barzani. Kurdish Peshmerga forces have been among the most effective forces battling Islamic State extremists, but the U.S. partnership with Kurdish forces in neighboring Syria has been a sore point with U.S. NATO ally Turkey.
Biden headed for Rome after leaving Iraq.