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VP Biden Meets Iraqi Leaders to Mark US Troop Drawdown

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is in Iraq for talks with the country's top leaders. He is due to preside over a formal change-of-command ceremony Wednesday to mark the start of "Operation New Dawn."

The U.S. vice president met quietly with Iraq's top leaders Tuesday in a bid to jump-start stalled talks to form a new government, more than five months after inconclusive parliamentary elections. His visit to Baghdad coincides with the formal end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq.

Iraq's outgoing caretaker, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, hailed the symbolic event while insisting that his country has once again become a sovereign and independent state.

He said the application of the withdrawal agreement of foreign forces constitutes the main step to restoring complete Iraqi sovereignty and achieving the Iraqi people's aspirations in setting up a free, independent and prosperous state.

Mr. Maliki also urged Iraq's quarreling leaders and political parties to come together. He called on all Iraqi political parties to unite in the battle against terrorism and in rebuilding the state and its security forces. That battle, he insisted, cannot be won without national unity.

A recent wave of violence - including simultaneous, coordinated carbombings - has revived fears of ordinary Iraqis worried about their security as U.S. combat forces withdraw.

One resident of Baghdad, Leith al-Khafaji, worried that Iraq's security forces might not be capable of filling the void left by departing U.S. combat troops. He said he hopes U.S. troops withdraw today, rather than tomorrow, but also that he's not sure if Iraqi troops are capable of handing the security of the country. Al-Khafaji points out the Iraq's armed forces are not adequately equipped for the task they are facing.

Iraqi Defense Minister Abdel Qader Jawad al-Bolani, however, told Iraqi government TV that he thought the country's security forces were "well trained and ready to assume to role of protector of the Iraqi people."

Analyst Peter Harling of the Crisis Group in Damascus thinks the U.S. may be handing over responsibility prematurely to Iraq's security forces.

"Basically, the U.S. is withdrawing, leaving Iraq with too many loose ends," said Harling. "None of the questions which were posed by the U.S. toppling of the former regime seven years ago have been answered. That's true about the power-sharing agreements between the various components of Iraq's society and polity. It's true in particular of the distribution of resources, of territory-disputed territories. So the relations between Sunnis, Shi'ites, Arabs, Kurds are largely undetermined. What's most striking today is that the U.S. is leaving a country where everything seems to remain essentially fluid. Although the situation is relatively calm today, in contrast with the peak of violence in 2006-2007, it's hard to predict where the country is headed."

Harling is not completely pessimistic, however, arguing that the country has "reached a form of equilibrium, of which the U.S. is part." He foresees an ongoing "renegotiation of the balance of forces" in the country, but is not certain if this will ultimately lead to more or to less violence.