Vice President Dick Cheney, marking five years since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, warned today against large drawdowns of American troops that could jeopardize recent security gains.
At a news conference with U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, Cheney said that given the nearly 4,000 U.S. troop deaths and billions of dollars spent on the war, it is very important that "we not quit before the job is done."
Cheney credited reductions in violence to President Bush's decision to deploy an additional 30,000 troops to the war zone. He said one of Bush's considerations in whether to draw back more than the 30,000 before he leaves office will be whether the U.S. can continue on a track toward political reconciliation and stability in Iraq.
"It would be a mistake now to be so eager to draw down the force that we risk putting the outcome in jeopardy," said Cheney, on an unannounced visit to Iraq. "And I don't think we'll do that."
"It's good to be back in Iraq," Cheney said after an hour-long meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Cheney, who was in Iraq 10 months ago, said the Iraqis have made legislative advances that would be vital to the country's future. He also said there was no question but there had been a dramatic improvement in security.
Al-Maliki, speaking through an interpreter, also cited security improvements and said he and the vice president had talked about negotiations under way to spell out the legal basis for the presence of U.S. troops on Iraqi territory and to establish the legal rights and obligations of the troops, the so-called "status of forces agreement."
Cheney landed at Baghdad International Airport, then flew by helicopter into the dusty, heavily secured Green Zone for talks with U.S. military and diplomatic officials and the Iraqi prime minister. It is Cheney's third vice presidential trip to Iraq where 160,000 American troops are deployed and the U.S. death toll is nearing 4,000.
His visit came while Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, also was in Iraq.
For security reasons, Cheney officials divulged few details about the vice president's schedule and asked reporters not to report on his location until he had moved on to another. Cheney was expected to make stops throughout the country, speak to troops and spend time with other Iraqi leaders.
Cheney's motorcade zigzagged through Baghdad to meetings as helicopter gunships circled overhead. Explosions were heard in parts of the city, but none were near the vice president.
"There is still a lot of difficult work that must be done," Cheney said after sitting down with Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and one of the most powerful politicians in the country.
"But as we move forward, the Iraqi people should know that they will have the unwavering support of President Bush and the United States in consolidating their democracy," Cheney said.
Oman was scheduled to be the first stop on Cheney's 10-day trip to the Mideast, but on Sunday night, he left Air Force Two parked on a tarmac in England and boarded a C-17 for the final five and a half hours of the 13-hour flight to the Iraqi capital.
The future of Iraq will be discussed in his closed-door talks with leaders of Oman, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Palestinians and Turkey. Cheney's discussions at each stop also will touch on Iran's nuclear program and its desire for greater influence in the region, high oil prices and the pursuit of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that President Bush wants to see before he leaves office.
Cheney, who is traveling in Iraq with his wife, Lynne, and daughter, Liz Cheney, last visited the country in May 2007 before the president's buildup of more than 30,000 additional U.S. troops was in full gear. Bush dispatched the extra troops to reduce violence so Iraqi politicians could forge agreements that would bring minority Sunni Arabs into the government and weaken or end the insurgency.
Security has improved markedly since last summer when the last of the five Army brigades arrived in Iraq to complete the military buildup, but Iraqi politicians are still in gridlock.
Cheney advisers say the vice president will highlight the reduction in violence and praise the fragile Iraqi government for passing some legislation aimed at national unity. In short, Cheney will compare and contrast Iraq before and after the increase in troops. He'll tell Iraqi leaders that they are on the right track and have made strides, but that now is the time to do more.
The Iraqis do not yet have a law for sharing the nation's oil wealth among the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, a law that the Bush administration believes will trigger multinational energy companies to invest in exploration and production in Iraq.
Also unfinished is a plan for new provincial elections. Iraq's presidential council, which must give its nod to laws passed by the Iraqi parliament, rejected a plan for new elections last month, shipping it back to the legislature.
Cheney pushes for Iraqi unity