Image: Joe Biden, Nouri al-Maliki
Handout  /  Getty Images
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, right, speaks with U.S. Vice president-elect Joe Biden, left, as a translator assists during a meeting Tuesday in Baghdad.
updated 1/13/2009 2:53:08 PM ET 2009-01-13T19:53:08

Vice President-elect Joe Biden told Iraqi leaders Tuesday that the incoming U.S. administration is committed to a responsible troop withdrawal that does not endanger improvements in security, an Iraqi spokesman said.

Biden later traveled to one of the major threats to stability — the northern city of Kirkuk, which has become a flashpoint of ethnic tensions.

He urged rival Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen to make concessions to peacefully resolve their competing claims to the oil-rich city.

U.S. officials issued no statement about Biden's meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which happened on the second and final day of his visit to Iraq.

However, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh quoted Biden as saying that U.S. President-elect Barack Obama wants to remove forces from Iraq in a manner than does not endanger the security gains of last year.

"He said that Obama is committed to withdraw but he wants the withdrawal to be a responsible one. Obama does not want to waste the security gains that have been achieved," al-Dabbagh said.

Obama pledged during his election campaign to remove all American combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office Jan. 20, shifting the focus to Afghanistan to combat a resurgent Taliban and al-Qaida-linked militants.

Since the November election, however, the U.S. and Iraq have signed a new security agreement that provides for all the more than 140,000 U.S. troops to leave by 2012, despite concerns among senior American commanders that Iraqi forces might not be ready by then to ensure stability.

Fragile gains
Biden, a Democrat from Delaware who has been a frequent visitor to Iraq as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the agreement sets out a new strategy between Iraq and America, according to al-Dabbagh.

Obama has pledged to consult with U.S. commanders and the Iraqi government before deciding on a withdrawal schedule.

Although violence has declined sharply in Iraq, the U.S. military has warned that security gains are fragile and extremists are likely to step up attacks ahead of this month's provincial elections. American commanders have cautioned against removing U.S. forces too quickly.

The Iraqi spokesman also said Biden talked about the U.S. financial crisis and expressed support for Iraq's efforts to build a democratic society from the rubble of the nearly 6-year war.

Biden also urged cooperation among the country's religious and ethnic groups, the spokesman added.

Biden repeated those themes during a meeting in Kirkuk with representatives of the rival ethnic communities there.

Kirkuk visit
Before the meeting, Biden told reporters that the Kirkuk issue was important to the U.S., which hoped the rival claims could be resolved peacefully soon.

During a private meeting with community leaders, Biden said the U.S. was spending billions of dollars in Iraq — some of it in Kirkuk — which instead could be used to help solve the global financial meltdown, according to a local official, Ribwar Faiq Talabani, who attended the session.

Biden also insisted that the Iraqis solve their disputes through concessions and compromise.

But Kurdish representatives repeated their demand that Kirkuk be incorporated into their self-ruled region and the Arabs insisted the city remain under central government control. Turkomen representatives suggested Kirkuk become its own self-governing region, Talabani said.

Iraq's parliament decided to postpone provincial elections in the Kirkuk area because the ethnic groups could not agree on a power-sharing arrangement.

Last month, a suicide bomber killed at least 55 people in a restaurant near Kirkuk where Kurdish officials and Arab tribal leaders were trying to reconcile their differences.

Biden and Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, arrived in Iraq on Monday after visits to Pakistan and Afghanistan. They stopped first in the southern city of Basra to discuss security and reconstruction.

More on Iraq | Joe Biden

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