MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. When President Obama assumed office in January 2009, there were 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. This week, the remaining 5,500 are leaving. The president spoke to reporters yesterday at the White House alongside Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. And he made a point of giving what he called a shout-out to Vice President Joe Biden. He said the vice president established and maintained strong connections with the Iraqis even through some difficult times.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And I think Prime Minister Maliki would agree that, you know, the vice president's investment in making this successful has been hugely important.
BLOCK: This afternoon, my co-host Robert Siegel talked with the vice president at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Vice President Biden, welcome to the program.
VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: It's a delight to be with you.
SIEGEL: Nearly nine years, at least $800 billion, 32,000 Americans wounded, more than 4,000 killed, was the war in Iraq worth it?
BIDEN: I think history is going to be the only judge of that. But I can tell you that when we came to office, we had over 150,000 folks there. The war had no political end in sight. And after three years, we've met our commitment, brought the war to a responsible end. And by December 31 of this year, there will be no more troops in Iraq.
SIEGEL: When there are no more U.S. troops in Iraq, will Iraq be an ally of the U.S. that we can count on in regional matters?
BIDEN: We're not looking for an ally. What we're looking for is a stable, democratic government that is not beholding anyone in the region and is able to be secure within its own borders and have its own policy and confident because of the - what we call the strategic agreement we're now working on with them. We will be deeply involved whether in every aspect for the government, from helping them improve their agriculture to train air traffic controllers to train pilots for the F-16s they're buying. So we'll have a deep relationship.
SIEGEL: But President Obama, yesterday, avoided the word ally. He used the word partner. Is the word ally off the table here?
BIDEN: No, they're a partner. To be an ally is a formal military alliance. And we have a formal military alliance in NATO, but we are partners with other countries all across the world, and they'll be a partner.
SIEGEL: Prime Minister al-Maliki expressed some reservations about sanctions against Syria. He remembers the sanctions against Iraq. With the Iraqis taking a different view of Syria on such a basic question, can the president persuade him, persuade the Iraqis?
BIDEN: It is not a fundamentally different view. Maliki has had overwhelming difficulty with Assad, has had confrontations with him, supports the Arab League's position, but is skeptical about whether or not the sanctions will result in the outcome, which is getting rid of Assad and a stable government coming to the fore. But we have no fundamental disagreement with the Saudis, I mean, excuse me, with the Iraqis, and we're going to meet with the Arab League, which we happen to support the position they're taking.
SIEGEL: Since Iraqi Shiites, Prime Minister Maliki among them, have very strong, historic religious ties with the biggest Shiite country, Iran, what is an appropriate limit to Iranian influence on that?
BIDEN: First of all, everybody - I know you know, but they are Persians and Arabs, to the fact they share a religion, a Shiite religion, does not mean that they are close. It doesn't work that way. There is a relationship because there's a long border. There's going to be trade between them. They should have a relationship. They want to make sure that - though that there is no undue influence coming from Iran or any other country in the region. And look, the fact of the matter is that Maliki has been very tough with the Iranians. Maliki is the guy that's gone down and gone after their sponsored forces down in Basra and so on. So there's no indication that Prime Minister Maliki is any other than a nationalist.
SIEGEL: If indeed Iraqi forces were attacked by Iranian-backed militias, would the U.S. assist Iraq in repelling them? Is that part of our relationship?
BIDEN: Well, I'm not going to speculate on that. But, look, if in fact, Iranian forces invaded any country in the region, there would be a fundamental response by the whole free world.
SIEGEL: There are some pretty basic questions about Iraq that remain unresolved as our forces are leaving: Where the profits from oil under the north of Iran should go to the region or to Baghdad, how high up in the old regime (unintelligible)...
BIDEN: Well, that's not true.
SIEGEL: ...(unintelligible) to be disqualified?
BIDEN: That's not true.
SIEGEL: It doesn't seem resolved to...
SIEGEL: ...the liking of the prime minister of the Iraqi, of the (unintelligible)...
BIDEN: No. But it is resolved where the resources go. They all go through Baghdad right now. All the profits from oil go through Baghdad, and the region gets seven - in the case of the Kurds, they get 17 percent of those resources. The issue remains as to who can decide whether or not to contract of an oil company on what territory. It's kind of like a debate as to whether or not could Texas bring in a foreign oil company to look for oil without the United States government agreeing on it.
So there are those dilemmas that they're working out, but they need an oil law that will further refine who can make the call as to when a contract can be made. Thus far, there is no disagreement on the sharing of the revenue.
SIEGEL: But do...
BIDEN: And that has to be done.
SIEGEL: But do pressure points like who can contract with an oil company, who should control the city of Kirkuk, how high in the old regime should someone be to be disqualified from a role in the new regime? After several years, those remain questions that are still open. Are you concerned that these are pressure points?
BIDEN: That's true, but all the big issues have been overwhelmingly resolved. They've had two elections. They now have a government in the past where the Shias didn't - the Sunnis did not participate at all, fully participated. They now have a government where the speaker of the core - their parliament is a Sunni, where they have a Kurdish president, where they have a Kurdish foreign - if you notice, when President Maliki was here, he was with a Kurdish foreign minister. So there has been overwhelming progress made. Are there still things that have to be resolved? Absolutely, absolutely.
SIEGEL: Mr. Vice President, we're speaking in one of the ornate secretary of war suites...
SIEGEL: ...of the Eisenhower Executive Office, where there are portraits of...
SIEGEL: ...former war secretaries surrounding us and some artifacts of old conflicts...
BIDEN: It's a great place to talk about ending a war.
SIEGEL: Ending a war. So what was the lesson of this war?
BIDEN: Well, there are a number of lessons to this war. One of the lessons of the war is that when you go into a country that is under a dictatorship, no matter what the underlying make-up of the country is, that it takes an awful long time to be able to help re-establish a circumstance where there's a possibility of a democratic country emerging. And so that's one of the lessons, I think, everyone has learned.
SIEGEL: Vice President Biden, thank you very much for talking with us today.
BIDEN: Thank you. Appreciate it.
BLOCK: The vice president talking there with my co-host, Robert Siegel.
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