Biden seeks thaw between Iraqi political rivals

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BAGHDAD (AP) — The two Iraqi leaders vying to become the nation’s next prime minister will get personal pleas Sunday from Vice President Joe Biden to end their rivalry that has delayed the seating of a new government as American troops head home.

Biden, the Obama administration’s point man on Iraq issues, will discuss the stalled politics in separate meetings with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his chief challenger, former premier Ayad Allawi.

Iraqi politicians have been bickering since the March 7 parliamentary election that left the country without a clear winner about who should have the right to form the next government. Al-Maliki and Allawi largely have been driving the delays as each tries to outmaneuver the other for a majority share of support in parliament.

At a July Fourth citizenship ceremony at one of Saddam Hussein’s former hunting lodges, Biden stressed that all of Iraq’s competing factions need to feel included in the new government — regardless of who leads it.

“Until they get that straight — and they’re getting it straight — then there’s no real shot to become what they’re capable of,” Biden said. “When the new government is formed it will mark something extraordinary: a peaceful transition of power.”

The vice president also reveled in the irony of naturalizing U.S. citizens in one of Saddam’s palaces, saying “we are in the middle of this marble palace making a lie of everything he stood for. I find it delicious.”

Insurgents continue to find gaps in Iraq’s security forces, and on Sunday suicide bombers outfitted with explosive vests struck provincial government headquarters in two cities.

The targeting of government offices is a hallmark of al-Qaida in Iraq, which may be looking to use Biden’s visit and the U.S. holiday as a reminder of Iraq’s continuing instability.

The deadliest attack came in Ramadi, located 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad, where a female bomber detonated her vest in a reception room outside Gov. Qasim al-Fahadawi’s office. Four people were killed and 23 injured, Anbar provincial councilman Aeefan Sadoun said. The governor, who lost an arm and part of leg in a similar attack in December, was in his office at the time.

In Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city and a northern stronghold of al-Qaida, police shot a suicide bomber near the provincial government’s headquarters, although the bomber still managed to detonate his explosive belt, a U.S. military official with knowledge of the incident said. Iraqi police said two policemen were wounded in the blast.

Whether Iraq’s ongoing political instability would lead to violence has been a concern since the March election, when the Shiite prime minister’s State of Law coalition narrowly lost out to Allawi’s Sunni-backed Iraqiya alliance, 89 seats to 91. That left both groups short of the 163-seat majority needed to govern outright.

Al-Maliki appeared to gain the upper hand after the election by joining forces with the Iranian-backed Iraqi National Alliance to form a super-Shiite coalition. But even that partnership has been stalled by its inability to decide who will be its pick for the prime minister post.

Biden was to meet early Sunday afternoon with Allawi, and later with al-Maliki.

The vice president’s aides said late Saturday that Biden believes that the new government — regardless of who becomes prime minister — must represent all sides to avoid touching off sectarian tensions that could destabilize Iraq.

The aides, speaking on condition of anonymity to more candidly discuss Biden’s thinking, said it appears that Iraqi leaders also agree on potential risks of a government that alienates any of the competing political factions.

Charles Dunne, an Iraq expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said Biden’s visit is a clear sign of “a new, more activist phase of American diplomacy in the election standoff.”

“There is a general worry that the United States is focusing on withdrawal and disengaging politically,” said Dunne, who worked on the National Security Council and at the Pentagon during the administration of former President George W. Bush. “This makes (Iraqis) worry about their own ability to manage these political conflicts — and about the future of Iraqi democracy itself.”

Biden arrived in Baghdad on Saturday evening for the long July Fourth weekend, his second visit to Iraq so far this year, and the fifth since he was elected vice president in 2008.

Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani arrived in Cairo Sunday for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and intelligence chief Omar Suleiman on efforts to forge a new Iraqi government.

Iraqi diplomats in Cairo said Egypt has embarked on a diplomatic bid to help Iraq’s bickering leaders resolve the four-month-old political impasse. The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not allowed to speak to the media.

Iraq’s Shiite vice president Adel Abel Mehdi is expected in Cairo on Sunday.


Associated Press Writers Lara Jakes and Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad, and Salah Nasrawi in Cairo contributed to this report.