U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has indicated Iraqi soldiers and police may still need American training and equipment beyond the end of this year when U.S. troops are scheduled to leave the country.
Biden’s unannounced trip to Iraq was the first by a top U.S. official since the country approved a new Cabinet last month, breaking a lengthy political deadlock.
After meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other officials in Baghdad, Biden said Iraq is on the threshold of a successful transition that will have a positive impact on the Middle East.
"The Iraqi people for the first time, I suspect I would argue in their history, are on the verge of literally creating a country that will be democratic, sustainable and God willing prosperous and it can have a dramatic impact on this entire region," he said.
The U.S. ended its combat mission in Iraq last August and is scheduled to withdraw completely by the end of this year.
Biden said while Iraqi security forces, trained by American soldiers, are continuing to improve, they are likely to need U.S. assistance in the future.
"Our mission has now fundamentally shifted since September," said the vice president. "But it is going to shift again at the end of 2011. We will probably be in the position of still maintaining and giving support. We will probably be in the position of still, in certain, specific areas, having to train and equip."
Prime Minister Maliki is under pressure from hardline Shi’ite members of his coalition government not to extend the U.S. military presence past the end of the year, although both Iraqi and U.S. officials say the country will not be in a position by then to defend its borders.
Biden spoke to hundreds of U.S. soldiers at their base in Baghdad, praising their courage and pointing out that more than 4,400 U.S. troops have been killed and an estimated 32,000 wounded since the 2003 invasion.
As Biden discussed the sacrifices made by U.S. soldiers, he became emotional and appeared to choke up when talking about visits he has made to wounded troops in military hospitals.
"And the thing that amazes me," he said. "The thing that amazes me about you all is no matter where I go in these hospitals I always ask the family that is there or the soldier, sailor, marine, airman that is there, who is the one injured, what can I do for you? And almost without exception the only request I ever get is Mr. Vice President can you help me get back to my unit?"
Biden came to Iraq on a trip that previously took him to Pakistan and Afghanistan.