As the US military presence in Iraq moves into the background, some Iraqi officials concerned that US preoccupation with the war in Afghanistan would prematurely leave Iraq to fend for itself are welcoming Washington's efforts to increase its political engagement here.
"My message to them is ... you lost Afghanistan in 2001, 2002, and 2003 because you turned your attention to Iraq from Afghanistan – now you are redirecting your attentions of Afghanistan and if you disengage with Iraq, it could be another failure. The situation is not that solid," says Foreign Minister Hoyshar Zebari in an interview.
Mr. Zebari, who has served as foreign minister for the last six years, says the US is still needed to help Iraq build government capacity and more effective government – as well as with national reconciliation.
Vice President Joe Biden arrived Thursday night on his first trip as President Barack Obama's point man on Iraq. He is expected to meet with President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, urging them to advance reconciliation efforts.
Now that violence has declined in most of the country, reconciliation between the Shiite-led government and Sunni factions, between Kurds and Arabs, and among a wide range of extremists who could potentially be persuaded to disarm and join the political process is seen as the key to building on the country's fragile stability.
With US combat forces pulling out of cities and towns this week in the first stage of a security agreement signed last year, the message from US military officials has generally been that whatever happens next is the Iraqis' responsibility. But US political officials have tended to hold a wider view, saying that a failure to help Iraq overcome its political divisions and establish functioning ministries could result in a setback that would come back to haunt the United States.
"Iraq is no longer a [US] priority, definitely," says Zebari. "In a way it is a good thing that the situation is moving but in another sense the situation still needs more attention, more focus, more engagement."
Biden's new role builds on his Iraq ties
As part of that increased engagement, President Barack Obama this week designated Vice President Joe Biden as his point man on policy on Iraq. Mr. Biden is expected to coordinate policy with the US Ambassador to Iraq, Chris Hill, and Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of US forces here, to try to narrow potentially dangerous ethnic and sectarian divisions here.
As a senator, Biden advocated dividing Iraq into three separate regions but the White House says that idea is history. In a country where personal relationships matter hugely, Biden's trips to Iraq as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and previous talks with Iraqi leaders are seen as an asset.
Also as part of Washington's increased engagement here, additional US ambassadors are intended to be sent to the American embassy in Baghdad to help support Amb. Hill, who recently arrived to head the largest US diplomatic mission in the world.