U.S. Vice President Joe Biden had talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Thursday focussing on long-term economic ties and Iraqi officials said the idea of delaying a U.S. military pullout did not come up.
Biden was on his first visit to Iraq since Maliki was reappointed for a second term after months of post-election wrangling and cost-cutting Republicans took over the U.S. House of Representatives.
Biden, picked by President Barack Obama as his point person for Iraq, met Maliki as the U.S. military prepares for a full withdrawal eight years after ousting Saddam Hussein.
Fewer than 50,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, compared with 144,000 in January 2009, when Obama and Biden took office. They have been focussed since the end of August on advising and assisting Iraqi forces as they take the lead in the fight against a weakened yet resilient insurgency.
Maliki is under popular pressure not to extend the U.S. military presence beyond 2010 even though Iraqi and U.S. officials say Iraq will be unable to defend its borders on its own. It will not have a fully functional air force by then.
The U.S. public does not appear to be in the mood for new or extended overseas military ventures, and U.S. Republicans, who won control of the House of Representatives in November, have promised to cut government spending and debt.
MORE BOMBINGS, TWO DEAD
As Biden prepared to set off for meetings, three roadside bombs planted near two Sunni and one Shi'ite Muslim mosque in Baghdad killed two people and wounded around 13.
A senior administration official said the United States was adhering to the agreed timetable for full withdrawal by December 31, 2011. But if Maliki asked the United States to stay, the Obama administration would listen to a request to do so in some form.
We would certainly listen to a request if the Iraqi government were to make one, the official said.
Ali al-Moussawi, a media adviser to Maliki, told Reuters the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq had not come up in talks.
The issue of the withdrawal has been clearly stated in the security pact, this is why it hasn't been discussed, he said, adding that talks had been centred around cooperation between the United States and Iraq on trade and industry.
A statement on Maliki's website said the premier had called for meetings between ministers from the two states in order to set up a working agenda for the strategic framework agreement.
Biden said the talks were going very well.
Biden's visit followed stops in Afghanistan and Pakistan and is his seventh to Iraq since January 2009.
His last visit was in September, when he urged Iraq to overcome a political logjam that had prevented agreement on a new government months after a March election.
U.S. officials pushed for a government to include both the actual vote winner, former premier Iyad Allawi's Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, and Maliki's Shi'ite-led State of Law.
Iraqiya ended up obtaining several key posts in the new Maliki government, including that of finance minister. Allawi himself will head a policy-setting council.
Biden also met with Allawi and Osama Al-Nujaifi, Iraq's parliamentary speaker.