BAGHDAD " Vice President Dick Cheney, marking five years since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, reaffirmed on Monday unwavering U.S. support for the Iraqis as they continue down what he called a "difficult but historic route to democracy."
"It's good to be back in Iraq," Cheney said after an hour-long meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Cheney, who was in Iraq 10 months ago, said the Iraqis have made legislative advances that would be vital to the country's future. He also said there was no question but there had been a dramatic improvement in security.
Al-Maliki, speaking through an interpreter, also cited security improvements and said he and the vice president had talked about negotiations underway to spell out the legal basis for the presence of U.S. troops on Iraqi territory and to establish the legal rights and obligations of the troops, the so-called "status of forces agreement."
Cheney landed at Baghdad International Airport, then flew by helicopter into the dusty, heavily secured Green Zone for talks with U.S. military and diplomatic officials and the Iraqi prime minister. It is Cheney's third vice presidential trip to Iraq where 160,000 American troops are deployed and the U.S. death toll is nearing 4,000.
Cheney's first meeting was a classified briefing with U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq who met him at the airport. Crocker and Petraeus are scheduled to travel to Washington next month to give a status report on the war.
For security reasons, Cheney officials divulged few details about the vice president's schedule and asked reporters not to report on his location until he had moved on to another. Cheney was expected to make stops throughout the country, speak to troops and spend time with other Iraqi leaders.
Cheney's motorcade zigzagged through Baghdad to meetings as helicopter gunships circled overhead. Explosions were heard in parts of the city, but none were near the vice president.
"There is still a lot of difficult work that must be done," Cheney said after sitting down with Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and one of the most powerful politicians in the country.
"But as we move forward, the Iraqi people should know that they will have the unwavering support of President Bush and the United States in consolidating their democracy," Cheney said.