VP Biden says U.S.-Iraq relationship won't end with troop withdrawal

Vice President Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenThe Hill's 12:30 Report Pence talks regularly to Biden, Cheney: report Biden moving toward 2020 presidential run: report MORE on Monday pledged a "long-term relationship" with Iraq even after all U.S. forces leave the country next year.

Speaking to a veterans group a week before the end of formal combat operations in Iraq, Biden said the Obama administration is committed to a final troop withdrawal deadline of summer 2011 — but that U.S. involvement there will not end at that time. 

"We are not leaving in 2011 ... we are beginning the transition," Biden told the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention in Indianapolis. "The date is important to the Iraqis. We wanted to make clear to them that they must step up. They must exercise sovereignty if they're ever going to prevail."

He added that the administration is "following President Bush's proposal for a long-term relationship with Iraq," describing security and economic partnerships that will last beyond the military commitment.

There are currently 650,000 active Iraqi security forces.

Biden emphasized improving conditions, and noted that Iraqis' recent operations have eliminated more than 30 top al Qaeda operatives. He also stressed the importance of the "political progress" marked by the March 7 parliamentary elections. The elections ended with no bloc commanding enough seats to form a new government, and the stalemate has continued.

"Politics, and not war, has broken out in Iraq," Biden said. "The hard work of forming a new government is under way. I personally have made it clear to the leading politicians that it's time for them to match the courage of their citizens by completing this process." 

He downplayed reports of Iranian influence on the Iraqi national government, calling it "minimal" and "greatly exaggerated."

"Iran spent $100 million to sway the Iraqi people," he said. "None of their candidates succeeded."

Although the last U.S. combat brigade has already left the country, Operation Iraqi Freedom — the American combat effort — will formally end on Aug. 31; President Obama will deliver a speech that day to mark the occasion. About 50,000 troops will remain through next July in an advisory role.

Biden rebuffed public skepticism about the war effort, saying it is important that the U.S. sustain its commitment long enough for the new leadership to exercise its plans.

Recent polls have shown that a majority of Americans believe that history will judge the Iraq war as a failure for the United States.

"All this talk about the inability to succeed is premature," he said. "Only now, this month, has Gen. [David] Petraeus had what the military told the president and me they need to succeed in their mission. We are only now beginning with the right general and the right number of forces."

He concluded by affirming the government's commitment to support troops, veterans and military families in what he called the "longest period of sustained combat" in American history.

"I know that our nation has but one truly sacred obligation … to prepare and equip those whom we send into harm's way and to care for them and their families when they come home," he said. "Our commitment ... is not negotiable. It is a sacred obligation."