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Baghdad Green Zone attacked during Biden visit

By DAVID RISING, Associated Press

September 15, 2009

BAGHDAD ľ Insurgents fired four mortar shells at Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone on Tuesday, killing two civilians, on the same day Vice President Joe Biden arrived in the Iraqi capital on an unannounced visit to help resolve political differences among Iraqis.

The shells were fired after Biden arrived in Iraq on his third trip to the country this year. It was not clear where he was at the time.

The faint pops of the mortars being fired were audible on the opposite side of the Tigris River from the Green Zone, and at least one of the shells was heard exploding on impact.

One round that fell short hit residential apartments on the Tigris River, killing two people and wounding five others, including a 12-year-old, a police official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment to the press.

As the White House's point man on Iraq, Biden said he has been in regular contact with the country's leaders.

"The whole purpose is to see how we can be helpful, if we can, in helping them resolve the outstanding political issues they have to resolve internally, so that when the (security agreement) is fully implemented we leave a stable Iraq," he told reporters after meeting with Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill.

The U.S.-Iraqi security agreement calls for the withdrawal of American combat forces by the end of August, 2010 and of all U.S. troops by the end of 2011.

The three-day trip gives Biden a chance to meet with the full range of Iraqi leaders, both in Baghdad's central government and in the self-governing Kurdish region, whose boundaries with the rest of the country have become a volatile fault line.

"I'm here to listen, and occasionally they have asked me to be an interlocutor on their behalf, and it's been of some value so far," he said.

Biden said that Odierno was optimistic that the readiness of Iraqi forces would allow the U.S. military to withdraw all combat forces next year according to plan, and then proceed with pulling out the remaining 50,000 troops by the end of the following year. There are now about 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

The Iraqi government plans to hold a national referendum on the agreement in conjunction with elections in January. If approved, the referendum would require all U.S. forces to leave within one year Ś well ahead of the existing plan to withdraw completely by the end of 2011.

Biden said of the referendum that Iraqi leaders have indicated "it is likely to happen." But he added, "I'm not sure it's settled yet."

Biden made his last visit to the country on July 4 to spend U.S. Independence Day with the troops. During that trip he also met with his son, Beau, who is an Army captain serving in Iraq.

In his meetings with Iraqi officials, Biden was expected to discuss plans for the January elections and the ongoing violence in Iraq's north. As the number of bombings and other attacks declines elsewhere in Iraq, the north remains a battleground between Sunni Arab extremists and Iraqi and U.S. forces. Kurdish-Arab tension there also frequently flares into violence.

Iraq's government hopes that on this visit the U.S. vice president will have suggestions on how to ease tension with neighboring Syria, which Iraq's prime minister has accused of harboring Saddam Hussein loyalists wanted in recent bombings.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has demanded that Syria hand over two suspects in the Aug. 19 truck bombings outside the foreign and finance ministries in Baghdad that killed more than 100 people.

Syria says the Iraqi government has failed to provide proof, rejecting extradition requests.

The United States has remained largely silent about al-Maliki's accusations, but has said Syria still enables the smuggling of foreign fighters into Iraq and that former members of Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath party live in that country.

"Syria continues to allow the facilitation of foreign fighters through Syria that both come into Iraq as well as, I believe, into Afghanistan," Odierno told reporters after meeting with Biden. "We do know that there are some ex-Baathist elements that are in Syria that are funding operations in Iraq, and we also know that they are operating Web sites that encourage attacks inside of Iraq."

"We have to continue to press Syria to take action against some of these elements that continue to ... attempt to create instability inside Iraq," he said.

Biden's visit comes just before senior officials from Syria and Iraq Ś possibly the two foreign ministers Ś are to meet in Istanbul, Turkey, on Thursday in an effort to defuse the crisis. A Turkish-mediated meeting last week in Cairo failed to make any headway.

:: Article nr. 57972 sent on 16-sep-2009 01:29 ECT


Link: news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090915/ap_on_re_mi_ea/iraq_biden

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