Vice President Joe Biden is visiting U.S. soldiers and Iraqi political leaders on the first trip by a top U.S. leader to Iraq since the June 30 withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraqi towns and cities.  Biden's trip comes amid a surge of insurgent attacks that are testing the capabilities of Iraqi forces.  

The vice president told reporters in Baghdad that the Obama administration was dealing with Iraq both on the political and the military fronts, and that he was pushing for a political solution to the long-standing conflict, to accompany the drawdown of U.S. troops.

"The president wants to focus within the White House on the implementation of our administration's plan to both draw down troops in Iraq which is under way the first stage," Biden said,  "but also the second piece of that plan is for there to be a combination of a political settlement among all the factions within Iraq. There's unresolved issues from boundary disputes to the oil law and my job is to try to help accommodate that region and those agreements."

More US pullbacks planned

Iraqi officials have been speaking with new authority and confidence since the June 30 U.S. pullback from Iraqi towns and cities. Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammed al-Askari looks ahead, optimistically, to the next stage of U.S. pullbacks.

He says that the first phase of the U.S. pullout ended with the U.S. handing over 168 bases and positions to Iraqi forces. Now, he adds, the next phase will include the drawdown of U.S. forces from 135,000 to 35,000,  leading up to the final withdrawal by the end of 2011.

Spike in violence

Despite the self-assurance of Iraqi leaders, many political issues remain.  Al Qaida in Iraq has been dealt a severe blow in recent months, but other insurgent groups continue to operate.

Al-Rafidein TV played more than a half dozen videos of alleged attacks against U.S. troops, Friday, showering praise on various insurgent groups.

The vice president's visit coincides with a spike in violence, with several bloody bombings in Baghdad and a car bomb in Kirkuk. Tuesday, more than 30 people were killed by a powerful car bomb in Kirkuk.

Conflicts between the mostly Shi'ite government of Prime Minister al-Maliki and the hardline Sunni opposition continue. Key Sunni groups accused the prime minister of cheating during the January elections and complain regularly that he awards top posts to Shi'ites.

Some Sunnis are also not pleased by Kurdish autonomy in the north, and the prospect of the ethnically divided, oil rich city of Kirkuk going to the Kurds, has many worried.

Hardline sunni MP Iyad Samaraie told Al-Baghdadia TV that "everything the Kurds have done, including their constitution, since the U.S.-led invasion ? should be considered null and void."

Dialogue encouraged

Middle East analyst Khattar Abou Diab, who is a professor at the University of Paris III, says that Vice President Biden is aiming to push Iraqi politicians to engage in more dialogue and less violence.

He says that we're now in a transition phase, following the U.S. pullout from Iraqi cities, and efforts are being made to normalize ties with Iraq. The French prime minister's visit, Thursday, he notes, is part of that normalcy, including economic ties ?. [Biden's] visit, he argues,  has a larger vista: he's trying to consolidate the political dialogue now under way, to normalize the situation further before the final US pullout, and he's still facing obstacles of violence, regional meddling, and the situation in Kirkuk. Negotiations are the only way around these problems, he concludes.

June was the bloodiest month in the last eight in terms of Iraqi civilian casualties, according to Iraqi government figures, and both northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul remain powderkegs.