Iraq Would Accept U.S. Soldiers as Trainers
BAGHDAD — Iraq’s prime minister indicated on Wednesday that he was open to the eventual return of American troops as trainers, underscoring that the United States is likely to be involved in this country’s security even after the last soldiers depart in the coming weeks.
“No doubt, the U.S. forces have a role in providing training of Iraqi forces,” said Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki after meeting Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who is here to mark the withdrawal and to inaugurate a new phase in ties between the United States and Iraq.
Mr. Maliki insisted that Iraq could provide for its internal security. And he made much of Iraq’s desire to build a relationship with the United States as a sovereign country, dealing with Washington on the basis of national interest and “mutual respect.”
But his comments suggested that for all the solemn pageantry of a long war ending, there is likely to be considerable continuity in the security relationship between the United States and Iraq, as it struggles to contain terrorist attacks by insurgent groups.
Mr. Biden reaffirmed that the two countries would maintain a “robust security relationship,” adding that it was up to the Iraqis to decide “what you think that relationship should be.” He and Mr. Maliki agreed to set up a committee to plan security cooperation.
“We will continue our discussions with your government over the substance of our security arrangements, including areas of training, intelligence and counterterrorism,” he said.
The inability of the United States and Iraq to agree on legal immunity for American troops led to President Obama’s announcement that the last soldiers would depart the country next month. The Pentagon had been negotiating to leave in place a residual force of between 3,000 and 5,000 soldiers to help train Iraqi forces.
But administration officials have suggested that once the withdrawal was complete — a politically significant milestone in the United States and Iraq — the two sides could negotiate the return of American troops for training purposes.
There are now only 13,000 American soldiers left in Iraq and their ranks are dwindling by 500 a day, though the United States will leave a vestigial force as liaison officers and to guard the embassy in Baghdad. The military is shipping out its equipment and turning over crucial installations.
Mr. Biden repeatedly portrayed the withdrawal as evidence that the United States keeps its promises. “In the neighborhood I’m from,” he said, “a promise made is a promise kept.”
Still, with both countries eager to turn the page, much of Wednesday’s meetings were devoted to other concerns like trade, energy and agriculture investment and visas for exchange students. Mr. Biden laid out a civilian partnership that he promised would draw American companies to Iraq and send Iraqis to American universities.
“We are embarking on a new path together, a new phase in this relationship,” he said, as he sat next to Mr. Maliki beneath glittering chandeliers at the governmental palace.
To underscore the emphasis on nonmilitary engagement, Mr. Biden singled out two officials in his 15-member delegation, Jeffrey D. Feltman, an assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, and Daniel B. Poneman, the deputy secretary of energy.
Mr. Maliki, who was flanked by members of his cabinet and other officials, said he hoped that American companies would pour into Iraq with the same vigor as American troops once did.
But in a telling moment that spoke to Iraq’s challenges, Mr. Maliki declared, “We are looking forward to the future of Iraq, which is going to be built on the outcome of this meeting.”
Mr. Biden, who was standing next to him, gently demurred, saying, “To suggest that the future of Iraq rests on our personal relationship, I think gives us too much credit.” The “success of Iraq will rest upon the vision of you and the civilian leadership,” he said.