Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday launched a new American military mission in Iraq, ushering in a fresh phase in a seven-year-old deployment that has cost the lives of more than 4,400 troops.
Addressing soldiers at Camp Victory outside Baghdad a day after the US combat role in Iraq officially ended, Biden expressed confidence that the worst days of the conflict were over.
Calling for unity around the new mission, he also acknowledged that the 2003 invasion had split US public opinion.
“It is no secret that this war has divided Americans but they have never shrunk from the united support of the United States military,” Biden said.
“Now is the time to put these differences behind us,” he added.
“Operation Iraqi Freedom is over but American engagement with Iraq will continue with the mission that began today, Operation New Dawn.”
The US vice president acknowledged the heavy toll paid by Iraqis during the conflict but expressed confidence that the worst was over.
“Today is also an important acknowledgement of the Iraqi losses in this conflict,” Biden said.
“Tens of thousands of security forces and innocent civilians have been killed. Many times that number have been wounded and displaced.
“The Iraqi people have rejected their ugly face of violence,” he added, referring to the insurgents. “I truly believe that the darkest days are now behind us.”
A total of 49,700 troops are currently deployed in Iraq for the new training and counter-terrorism mission that will continue until a full withdrawal at the end of next year.
Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who was also in Iraq to mark the launch of the new mission, told the troops remaining in the country that their work was still vital despite the shift in spotlight to the war in Afghanistan.
“Even as the weight of our military efforts and public attention has shifted to Afghanistan, you should know your work here going forward is critical to the future of this part of the world, and to the national security of our country,” Gates said.
He too acknowledged the domestic controversy in the United States over the war.
“The problem with this war for many Americans is that the premise on which we justified going to war proved not to be valid,” he told reporters ahead of the handover ceremony.
“Even if the outcome is a good one from the standpoint of the United States, it will always be clouded by how it began,” he added.
Then US president George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 arguing that the country was rife with weapons of mass destruction. Despite exhaustive efforts, none were ever found.
Biden, who has held repeated meetings with Iraqi political leaders since an inconclusive March general election in a bid to speed up protracted coalition talks, called on them to have to make the necessary compromises to form a new government.
“I strongly urge them to match the courage their citizens have shown by bringing this process to a close and forming a government,” Biden said.
President Barack Obama had vowed to get American combat troops home from Iraq and has pulled nearly 100,000 soldiers out — even as he escalated the war in Afghanistan.
Under the terms of a November 2009 security agreement between Washington and Baghdad, the rest are due to withdraw by the end of next year. However, some Iraqis — including chief of staff Lieutenant General Babakar Zebari who attended Wednesday’s ceremony — have called for that deadline to be extended.
The deputy commander of the new US mission, Lieutenant General Michael Barbero, told reporters he expected the new Iraqi government to make a formal request for an extension as the end of next year looms.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do right up to December 2011. Anything beyond that obviously is going to have to be requested by the Iraqi government and a policy decision in Washington,” Barbero said.
“I would predict that they are going to ask for some assistance,” he added.
Gates said the administration was willing to consider any Iraqi request to amend the pullout timetable.
“We’d be willing to look at that but again it would have to come at the initiative of the Iraqis,” the defence secretary told troops at Camp Ramadi, west of Baghdad.
In a televised speech on Tuesday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki hailed the end of the US combat mission. “Today, Iraq has become a sovereign and independent country,” he said.
But neighbouring countries were not so convinced.
“Iraq will remain an occupied country as long as there is a single American soldier on its soil,” said the Al-Baath newspaper of Syria’s ruling party.