BAGHDAD – Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the end of American combat operations Tuesday leaves his country independent and an equal to the United States and he assured his people their own security forces will protect them.
But the extent of U.S. influence in Iraq was still palpable. Vice President Joe Biden, presiding over the transition of the American role in Iraq, held a round of meetings with political leaders and pushed them to break a half-year impasse that has held up formation of a new government after inconclusive elections in March. He said Iraq was much safer than before.
Al-Maliki spoke ahead of President Barack Obama's address Tuesday night from the Oval Office to outline the withdrawal of combat forces.
"Through implementing the troop withdrawal agreement, our relations with the United States of America have entered into a new phase between two equal, sovereign states," he said.
"Iraq today is sovereign and independent," al-Maliki added, calling Aug. 31 an "immortal day."
The U.S. has deemed Tuesday the formal end of American combat missions in Iraq. Just under 50,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq — down from a peak of nearly 170,000 at the height of the military surge in 2007. Those troops will be focused on training and assisting the Iraqi military, and will no longer be allowed to go on combat missions unless requested and accompanied by Iraqi forces.
Biden began his day at al-Maliki's office in the fortified Green Zone. It was the first of five meetings with political leaders, pressing them to come to a power-sharing agreement that would allow formation of a new government.
He refused to give any details about the closed-door discussions, saying only: "They've gone well."
In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that political paralysis and continued sectarian violence cloud Iraq's future. And hours before his Oval Office address, Obama told troops just back from Iraq that his speech "is not going to be a victory lap" nor a cause for celebration.
Biden dismissed as "dismal" recent attempts by extremists to incite violence, scoffing at suggestions that attacks could lead to widespread violence.
"Notwithstanding what the national press says about increased violence, the truth is things are still very much different, things are much safer," Biden told al-Maliki at the start of their 90 minute meeting.
But throughout the day, Biden's entourage had to duck for cover three times upon hearing alerts for incoming rocket and mortar fire. No impact was heard, meaning that the shelling likely fell short of its target.
Nevertheless, it was a reminder the persistent dangers — something that has left even those Iraqis who opposed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion fearful about the American exit.
"It's not the right time," said Johaina Mohammed, a 40-year-old teacher from Baghdad. "There is no government, the security is deteriorating, and there is no trust."
Part of the trepidation stems from doubts about whether Iraq can go it alone. Security forces are vastly improved, and attacks have plummeted since the dark days of 2006 and 2007 when the country teetered on the verge of civil war.
But rarely a day goes by without some loss of life, and spectacular attacks such as a nationwide onslaught of bombings and shootings last week that killed 56 people still happen with disturbing regularity.
The fear is only exacerbated by political divisions, as evidenced by the political impasse, that some believe could split along religious and ethnic fault lines or even return Iraq to a dictatorship.
"They should wait for the government to be formed and then withdraw," said Mohammed Hussein Abbas, a Shiite from the town of Hillah south of Baghdad.
Al-Maliki's mostly Shiite political coalition was narrowly bested in the March 7 parliamentary vote to a secular alliance backed mostly by Sunnis and led by former Shiite premier Ayad Allawi. Both al-Maliki and Allawi want to be prime minister and have spent the last six months trying to recruit allies and block the other from succeeding.
That has held up the appointment of other key officials and the seating of the government. Parliament has only met once, in June, since the election.
Biden has visited Iraq six times since January 2009, and has been in close contact with Baghdad since March to try to coax a compromise out of the parties.
"I come here so much you should make me a citizen; I'm such a frequent visitor," he told Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi.
A senior Obama administration official said the discussions showed progress in negotiations among competing rivals — even if it remains far too early to predict an outcome.
Al-Maliki, in his speech, called on political competitors to "unite lines in confronting terrorism" as a top priority as the American military leaves Iraq completely by the end of 2011 under a security agreement between the two nations.
"Our success is guaranteed by our national unity," he said.
And failure to build stability by continued stonewalling to seat a government could be Iraq's undoing, said Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"The main threat to the country comes from the lack of political agreement and the fact there is still no new government," Ottaway said.