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Biden delivers positive review on Iraq, Afghanistan

By Alan Silverleib, CNN
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Biden: U.S. will keep promise to vets
  • NEW: Biden says U.S. forces are making progress in the Afghan war
  • Biden says Iraqi officials will succeed in forming a unity government
  • He dismisses fears of Iranian influence in Iraq
  • The U.S. combat mission in Iraq is scheduled to end on August 31

(CNN) -- Vice President Joe Biden delivered an optimistic assessment of the political situation in Iraq on Monday, predicting the successful formation of a new unity government in Baghdad and declaring that attempts by al Qaeda to inflame sectarian tensions have "utterly failed."

Biden also dismissed the impact of alleged Iranian attempts to manipulate and control the Iraqi political process. He declared Iranian influence in Iraq to be "minimal" and "greatly exaggerated."

He asserted that the overall level of violence in Iraq has now declined to the point that some early U.S. veterans of the conflict "would not recognize" the country today. The roughly 650,000-member Iraq security force is "already leading the way to defend and protect [the] country," he said.

The vice president's remarks, delivered at a gathering of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Indianapolis, Indiana, came a little over a week before the August 31 deadline for the conclusion of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq.

"Some said that our drawdown would bring about more violence. Well, they were wrong," he declared.

Iraqi officials, however, have noted a recent campaign of bombings and shootings in Baghadad, where gunmen have attacked traffic police and checkpoints, killing Iraqi troops.

Many Iraqis have blamed the recent violence on the current political paralysis, in which quarreling parties have failed to form a government nearly six months after parliamentary elections. The Iraqi government has been pushing to increase security ahead of the U.S. drawdown.

The 4,000-member U.S. 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team departed Iraq on Thursday in a move that many took to symbolize the end of U.S. combat operations in the country, more than seven years after the American-led invasion.

After the 4th Stryker's departure, the U.S. military said the number of U.S. troops remaining in Iraq was about 52,000. That figure puts U.S. forces on track to draw down to 50,000 troops by the end of August, when forces are to switch to an advise-and-assist role.

Biden stressed that the changing U.S. role in Iraq should be not be viewed as American disengagement. He noted that the administration is largely following former President George W. Bush's plan for a "long-term" relationship with Baghdad.

Civilian efforts to promote Iraqi stability are ramping up, he said. But U.S. troops remaining in the country "know how to fight if they have to," he warned.

President Barack Obama is planning a speech on the situation in Iraq after he returns to Washington from vacation on August 29, a senior administration source said Sunday.

Biden also sounded an optimistic note on the U.S. war in Afghanistan. We are "making measurable progress" toward the goal of defeating and disrupting al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, he said.

He noted that there are now roughly 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has only just received the support believed to be necessary to achieve the administration's goal there, he said.

"Don't buy into (the notion that) we have failed in Afghanistan," Biden told the crowd. "All this talk about the inability to succeed is premature."

Biden took on critics of the July 2011 date to start a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, arguing that it was necessary to set a date to make clear to Afghan officials that they "must step up" and "exercise sovereignty if they're ever going to prevail."

But "we are not leaving in 2011," he said. Al Qaeda and other extremist elements "cannot outlast us."