BAGHDAD - U.S. Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Baghdad Tuesday to visit U.S. troops nearing completion of their withdrawal from Iraq by year-end.
Biden's trip spotlights the fulfillment of a key pledge by President Barack Obama as he campaigns for re-election in 2012, winding down an unpopular war at a time when most Americans are preoccupied with the weak economy back home.
Marking the end of the drawdown, Biden will address U.S. forces in a ceremony to "commemorate the sacrifices and accomplishments of U.S. and Iraqi troops," a White House official said. He will also meet with Iraqi leaders during the visit that ends Thursday.
"Over nearly three years in office, the administration has kept its promises on Iraq," the official told reporters traveling with Biden.
Almost 4,500 U.S. troops have died since President George W. Bush ordered the invasion more than 8 1/2 years ago, based on claims of weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist.
From a peak above 170,000 troops in the 2007 surge, some 14,500 remain and nearly all will be gone by Dec. 31. Obama decided to pull them out on schedule after failing to agree terms with Baghdad to leave several thousand in place.
Violence in Iraq has dropped dramatically compared to the darkest days of its civil war in 2006 and 2007, but the country remains unstable.
There have been a spate of deadly attacks in recent days and Obama has been criticized for not pushing harder to get agreement for many more U.S. troops to stay.
ENDING U.S. INVOLVEMENT
Sectarian and ethnic conflicts between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims and Kurds have impeded political progress and economic growth, and U.S. conservatives fear the troop pullout will also allow Iran to extend influence over Iraq's Shi'ite leaders.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, heading a coalition including politicians vehemently opposed to foreign troops, backed a U.S. training presence but rejected any legal immunity for American forces, terms deemed unacceptable in Washington.
Maliki will visit Obama at the White House on Dec. 12.
U.S. voters are paying little attention to foreign affairs amid a tough economy back home and next November's U.S. election will be primarily fought over the ability of Obama to spur growth and bring down painfully high unemployment.
The savings from ending the war in Iraq, as well as from drawing down troops in Afghanistan, will help Obama with the U.S. deficit in the face of severe budget constraints, as the president tries to persuade Congress to spend on jobs.
The cost to the U.S. taxpayer for the Iraq war in military spending alone is over $700 billion.
Fewer than 200 U.S. soldiers are expected to remain in Iraq after Dec. 31, part of a State Department task force responsible for military sales and, to some extent, advising Iraq's security forces.
About 700 U.S. mostly civilian trainers will also stay, far fewer than the several thousand troops and contractors once under discussion.
The White House wants to underscore Obama's national security track record, defending the Democratic president from Republican criticism by pointing to the U.S. killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Washington's help in overthrowing Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from costly foreign wars.
Security experts, meanwhile, warn against thinking al Qaeda has been permanently dismantled in Iraq, or in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are to leave by the end of 2014. They say the group may seek to recruit new supporters by proclaiming that it forced the United States out of both countries.
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