Biden in Iraq to Prepare for Postwar Relations

Baghdad – Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. arrived here on Tuesday for a visit meant to inaugurate a new relationship between the United States and Iraq, just weeks before the last American troops are scheduled to leave the country.

Landing after nightfall in a military transport plane, a mode of arrival that American officials hope will soon seem like a relic of a distant era, Mr. Biden came with an agenda that included new areas of cooperation in trade and diplomacy, as well as traditional security concerns.

Mr. Biden’s unannounced trip to Iraq is laden with symbolism — a farewell to arms, but also a call for two countries linked by bloodshed to begin dealing with each other in the normal language of diplomacy.

His agenda includes obligatory meetings with Iraqi officials and the U.S.-Iraq Higher Coordinating Committee, a panel set up to steer the relationship; Mr. Biden will lead the committee meeting on Wednesday, along with Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

But it is the pageantry of the visit that will capture the most attention. On behalf of President Obama, Mr. Biden is scheduled to take part in a solemn ceremony thanking American service members for their sacrifices and saluting the Iraqi troops now responsible for safeguarding their nation’s security.

“It’s good to be back for this purpose,” Mr. Biden said to reporters before a briefing from the American ambassador, James F. Jeffrey, and the military commander, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III. The visit is Mr. Biden’s seventh as vice president and 16th over all; he said General Austin had told him that by now he was eligible for Iraqi citizenship.

It is also a personal coda of sorts. Mr. Biden has staked out a position as an influential voice on Iraq policy, cultivating close relationships with Iraqi political leaders. He developed a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of Iraq’s tribal politics and speaks with relish about its tangled feuds and rivalries.

Mr. Obama handed Mr. Biden the Iraq portfolio in early 2009, a move that raised eyebrows because Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton seemed the more obvious candidate for the assignment. At that time, Mr. Biden’s son Joseph R. Biden III, known as Beau, was serving in Iraq with the Delaware National Guard.

Mr. Biden will confront a number of politically volatile issues while he is here. Exxon recently signed an oil-exploration deal with the Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq that enraged the central government, which has threatened to impose sanctions against it. Officials said the Obama administration was irritated by Exxon’s haste in making the deal, but did not interfere with the negotiations.

There are also renewed worries that Iran will try to destabilize Iraq after the Americans leave — a threat that administration officials acknowledge, though they argue that few Iraqis, Sunni or Shiite, have any desire to be dominated by their neighbor.

Fears about security have risen in recent days after a series of insurgent attacks left about 50 people dead in Baghdad, Basra and elsewhere. On Monday, a taxi loaded with explosives blew up in front of a prison here, killing at least 13 people. Ambassador Jeffrey said on Sunday that there was a “good possibility” that two other recent bombings had been carried out by Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Mr. Biden’s itinerary is cloaked in heavy security. Only his later stops in Turkey and Greece were announced ahead of time. In Turkey, the vice president is expected to discuss Iraq, officials said, and the upheaval in neighboring Syria. In Greece, he is likely to offer solidarity, if not any fresh American aid, to help the Greeks stabilize their public finances.

After the final troop withdrawals announced by the president last month are complete, only a vestigial presence of American military liaison officers, embassy guards and security contractors will be left, most of them working at the embassy complex on the banks of the Tigris River.

It is not quite the fade-out the administration had planned for: the Pentagon wanted to leave a residual force of 3,000 to 5,000 troops after 2011 to help train Iraqi soldiers. But when the two sides were unable to work out an agreement to guarantee American troops legal immunity in Iraq, the administration refused to commit to an extended deployment.

For Mr. Maliki, the political imperative of ending what many view as an American occupation apparently outweighed any security benefits of leaving a residual force in place. For Mr. Obama, the image of soldiers leaving Iraq is politically resonant, fulfilling a pledge he made as a candidate in 2008 to end the war.

Next year, after the withdrawal is complete, officials said, the United States and Iraq are likely to resume negotiations for a small American force that would train Iraqi officers, manage border tensions with the Kurds and help with counterterrorism.

Indeed, the basic theme of Mr. Biden’s visit is that the United States is not leaving Iraq behind. In addition to a diplomatic presence here, America will maintain a military footprint throughout the Persian Gulf region.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: November 29, 2011

An earlier version of this article incorrectly described remarks by Ambassador James F. Jeffrey, the American ambassador to Iraq. Mr. Jeffrey said on Sunday that there was a “good possibility” that two recent bombings had been carried out by Al Qaeda in Iraq. He was not referring to a bomb that exploded outside a prison on Monday.