/ 17 March 2008

Dick Cheney makes Iraq visit

United States Vice-President Dick Cheney, an architect of the US-led invasion of Iraq, made an unannounced visit to Baghdad on Monday to assess the success of a troop build-up five years after the war began.

Cheney arrived as Republican candidate John McCain, who will be the Republican choice in November’s presidential election, was meeting Iraqi leaders as part of a Senate Armed Services Committee fact-finding mission.

Like McCain, Cheney is in Iraq as part of a wider tour to the Middle East. Cheney will also visit Saudi Arabia, Jerusalem, the Palestinian territories, Turkey and Oman on a nine-day tour.

Both men have been staunch supporters of a US troop build-up that helped drag Iraq back from the brink of all-out sectarian civil war between majority Shi’ites and minority Sunni Muslims who were dominant under Saddam Hussein.

Cheney was met on his arrival in Baghdad by General David Petraeus, the commander of US forces in Iraq.

After talks with Petraeus and US ambassador Ryan Crocker he was due to meet Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani and other Iraqi leaders to discuss security and political issues, a senior administration official said.

Cheney last visited Baghdad in May 2007, a month before the deployment of an extra 30 000 troops was completed.

Attacks across Iraq have fallen by 60% since last June, when the troop build-up was completed as part of a broader counter-insurgency strategy that included taking troops out of large bases and putting them in smaller combat outposts.

A senior US administration official said before Cheney’s trip that Middle East leaders would be interested in seeing how he compares the conclusions from his trip a year ago with his assessment now that the troop build-up has been completed.

”There’s still a lot to be done, but I think he’s going to be able to say we’re on the right track,” the official said.

”I don’t think he’ll be shy about saying progress is being made and, for everybody who can do more, now is the time to do more,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

Spike in violence

Despite the overall fall in violence, there has been a spike in violence since January after a series of large-scale bombings blamed by the US military on Sunni Islamist al-Qaeda, which US commanders say is the biggest threat to peace in Iraq.

The US military says that the uptick in violence in the past three months does not represent a trend.

The growth of neighbourhood security units set up by mainly Sunni Arab tribal leaders and a ceasefire ordered by anti-US Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr for his Mehdi Army militia have also been credited with bringing down violence.

US troop withdrawals, a key subject in the US presidential election campaign, have been tied to the success of the troop build-up. A drawdown to about 140 000 troops from 160 000 is due to be completed in July.

US President George Bush will receive a new assessment soon from Petraeus and Crocker that he will consider in deciding whether any changes are needed to US strategy.

Both Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, have vowed to start bringing troops home in 2009 if elected but Cheney has warned critics that a premature US withdrawal would spark chaos and further bloodshed in Iraq.

Among political issues Cheney will discuss with Iraq’s leaders are a stalled hydrocarbon law, one of Washington’s so-called reconciliation benchmarks meant to draw Shi’ites and Sunnis together.

The law will share revenues from Iraq’s vast oil reserves, the world’s third-largest, but remains deadlocked among political infighting.

Washington has been urging Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government to take advantage of security gains to make political progress. – Reuters