Biden and Gates in Iraq to mark US change of command

Vice President Joe Biden and Defence Secretary Robert Gates were on Wednesday to preside over a change of US military command in Iraq, after President Barack Obama declared an end to combat operations.

Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin was to become the new commander of US forces here, replacing General Ray Odierno, in a ceremony at Al Faw Palace, the former hunting lodge of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein near Baghdad airport.

Biden, who arrived in Iraq for talks with political leaders on Monday, was to be joined by Gates who landed early Wednesday just hours after Obama brought down the curtain on the US combat mission here after more than seven years.

Soon after his arrival, Gates headed to Camp Ramadi, an American base about 100 kilometres (80 miles) west of Baghdad, where he was to meet US soldiers.

Odierno, the top US commander in Iraq since taking over from General David Petraeus in 2008, has spent a total of 56 months in the country since the start of the war.

He told the New York Times on Monday that failure to form a new government could undermine Iraqis’ faith in democratic rule. “The longer that takes, the more frustrated they might get with the process itself,” Odierno said.

Biden’s visit was aimed at persuading Iraqi political leaders to finally form a government, almost six months after a general election resulted in deadlock, ushering in so far fruitless coalition talks between rival parties.

The change of command ceremony will also mark the launch of Operation New Dawn, the American military’s new “advise and assist” mission in Iraq, which will be the task of less than 50,000 US troops now stationed in the country.

Obama used a primetime Tuesday speech from the Oval Office to say that Iraq’s people must now take the lead in charting their destiny as the United States turns to rebuilding their own economically-battered nation.

The president spoke of his “awe” at the sacrifices of US troops — more than 4,400 have died in Iraq since the invasion — and issued a statesmanlike appeal to heal domestic divides opened by the conflict.

“Tonight, I am announcing that the American combat mission in Iraq has ended,” Obama said, seated in the same spot as former president George W. Bush when he unleashed the US war machine more than seven years ago.

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.

But with 49,700 American troops remaining in the country on a training and counter-terrorism mission until the end of the next year, he also warned that although US combat was ending, violence in Iraq would not.

Statistics released by the Iraqi government early Wednesday which said 426 people — comprising 295 civilians, 77 police and 54 soldiers — were killed here in August, bore out Obama’s prediction of more bloodshed.

Gates on Tuesday said it was no time for victory parades in Iraq, seeking to avoid comparisons to the “Mission Accomplished” banner unfurled on a US warship as Bush announced that “major combat operations” had ended in 2003.

“I am not saying that all is, or will necessarily be, well in Iraq,” Gates said in a speech in the Midwestern state of Wisconsin.

“The most recent elections have yet to result in a coalition government. Sectarian tensions remain a fact of life. al Qaeda in Iraq is beaten, but not gone,” he warned.

“This is not a time for premature victory parades or self-congratulation,” Gates said, adding “we still have a job to do and responsibilities there.”

In a television address to his people, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki earlier Tuesday said that his country’s soldiers and police were now in charge, adding he was confident the last US forces would leave as planned in 2011.

“This is a day that will remain in the memory of all Iraqis. Today, Iraq has become a sovereign and independent country,” he said.