By Mehdi Lebouachera
BAGHDAD, Jul 04, 2009 (AFP) - US Vice President Joe Biden said on Saturday that America's role in Iraq was switching from deep military engagement to one of diplomatic support, ahead of a complete withdrawal from the country in 2011.
He told newly sworn-in American citizens, mainly soldiers, that the United States had honoured its June 30 obligation to withdraw troops from Iraq's towns and cities and the focus was now on strengthening political ties.
"You have lost comrades, 4,322 fallen angels, over 30,000 wounded -- 17,000 critical, but because of your service and their sacrifice Iraq is emerging from the terror of sectarian strife," Biden said at Camp Victory, near Baghdad.
"There is still an awful lot of hard work to do here, but thanks to you Iraqis are beginning to take responsibility for their own destiny and we will begin to welcome you home with the honour and gratitude you deserve."
The citizenship ceremony saw 237 people, mainly Mexican and Filipino servicemen who joined the army while resident in the United States, as well as several Iraqis who work as military translators, take the oath of allegiance.
"Our diplomats and civilians will focus on helping Iraqis make the much needed political compromise necessary for a lasting peace and security," Biden added.
His comments came a day after meetings with Iraqi leaders in which he warned of a "hard road ahead if Iraq is going to find lasting peace and stability."
"It's not over yet," Biden said after talks with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, which focused on bolstering trust between the conflict-torn nation's various sects.
"There are still political steps that must be taken and Iraqis must use the political process to resolve their remaining differences and advance their national interest.
"We stand ready if asked, and if helpful, to help in that process," he added.
A senior US official told reporters that Biden had also warned that Washington would disengage politically if violence in Iraq spiked.
"If it actually reverts to violence then that would change the nature of our engagement. He was quite direct about that," the official said.
"He also said if by the actions of different parties in Iraq, Iraq were to revert to sectarian violence or engage in ethnic violence then that's not something that would make it likely that we would remain engaged."
Biden's trip comes just after President Barack Obama charged him with overseeing the US departure in 2011.
Following Friday's talks, Maliki, who is expected to visit Washington soon, said the June 30 US troop pullback signalled that the two countries had "entered a new phase."
"We will work during the next visit to the United States to push forward bilateral relations in various areas," a government statement said, quoting the prime minister.
"For his part, the US vice president said that the United States will continue to support the government of national unity and assist Iraq in the United Nations to get out of Chapter VII," a reference to sanctions imposed during Saddam Hussein's regime which was toppled in the 2003 US-led invasion.
Iraq marked Tuesday's American pullback with a national holiday.
The country's 500,000 police and 250,000 soldiers are now in charge in cities, towns and villages. Most of the 133,000 US troops, now based outside cities, will largely play a training and support role.
Under a bilateral security accord signed last November, US commanders must now seek Iraqi permission to conduct operations, but their troops retain a unilateral right to "legitimate self-defence."http://www.zawya.com/story.cfm/sidAN...4T105304ZMXK16