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Biden visits Iraq to talk about troops' exit

BAGHDAD - Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Iraq early today for talks with the new government's leaders about the future of American troops in the country as they prepare to leave at year's end.

Biden's unannounced trip marks the first visit by a top U.S. official since Iraq approved a new cabinet last month.

Iraqi officials said they expected the issue of whether to keep some U.S. forces in Iraq beyond the Dec. 31 deadline would dominate Biden's talks with President Jalal Talabani, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Kurdish President Massoud Barzani.

Iraq's top military commander has said U.S. troops should stay until Iraq's security forces can defend its borders, which he said could take until 2020. But al-Maliki, pressured by hard line Shia Muslims, has signaled he wants American troops to leave on schedule.

Last weekend, the influential and anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr returned to Iraq after nearly four years of exile, in part to insist that the U.S. "occupiers" must leave on time or face retribution among his followers "by all the means of resistance."

The visit is Biden's seventh since January 2009. He arrived in Iraq after stops in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the U.S. has refocused its efforts against al-Qaida and allied extremist groups that threaten American security. - AP

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