US Vice President Joe Biden made an unannounced visit to Iraq on Thursday, in a show of support for an Iraqi government that's plagued by allegations of corruption, and struggling to win in its fight against Islamic State.
It is the first time that Biden, the point person for the White House on Iraq, has visited the country since the United States officially withdrew its forces in 2011. The visit comes as the Obama administration is trying hard to bolster a weak Iraqi government, and Biden is the third US official to visit Iraq in recent weeks — Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry also both made trips there over the past month.
Biden plans to meet with senior Iraqi officials at a time when Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is locked in a political stalemate with the parliament over Abadi's plans to reshuffle his cabinet, and replace ministers who were selected for their religious or sectarian affiliations. This week, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Baghdad, urged on by prominent cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, to support the prime minister's plan. The Iraqi government was forced to redeploy troops from the front-lines of the Islamic State's territory to ensure security in Baghdad during the protests.
Since the US toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein, the US-backed Iraqi government has doled out political posts based on a quota system that divides power between Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish groups. That system has been blamed for political corruption, and for promoting disarray and cronyism within the Iraqi army.
Speaking last week in Saudi Arabia, President Obama expressed frustration with the political stagnation in Iraq. "Now is not the time for government gridlock or bickering," he said, describing Prime Minister Abadi as a "good partner." It's unclear what, if anything, Biden's trip can do to bolster Abadi, but the US has been increasing its footprint in Iraq in recent months, in a bid to dislodge the Islamic State.
The Islamic State swept into Iraq in 2014, and the Iraqi army — which had been trained and supported by the United States — fled as militants advanced. Over the past two years Iraqi forces have won back some of the territory, such as the provincial capital of Ramadi, with the help of thousands of US airstirkes. But the Islamic State still controls the major city of Mosul, and President Obama has expressed skepticism that the city will be retaken anytime soon.
Still, US officials say Biden is eager to lend his support to the Iraqi government during his visit. "He's been itching to get back for a while. We have been looking for an opportunity," a senior administration official told reporters travelling with Biden to Iraq.
Biden has close personal relationships with Iraqi leaders and speaks with them every 10 days on average and his trip has been in the works for months, a senior administration official said.
An administration official also added that the trip serves to counter a "misperception in the region" that Iran has undue influence in the nation. Iranian-backed militias have been some of the most active frontline troops fighting against the Islamic State. Their presence has proven awkward for the United States, which has been put in the position of calling in airstrikes that wind up supporting Iranian-backed forces on the ground.
Reuters contributed to this report
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