Biden 'extremely optimistic' about Iraq's democracy

BAGHDAD, Arthur MacMillan- US Vice President Joe Biden said on a surprise visit to Baghdad on Saturday he was optimistic Iraqi politicians could end the squabbles that have deadlocked the conflict-torn nation's democracy for months.
Biden, wearing a blue blazer and khaki slacks, was accompanied on the trip by his wife Jill, who was on her first trip to a country which has failed to form a new government since a close general election race on March 7.

US Vice President Joe Biden
US Vice President Joe Biden
The White House said the couple was "in Iraq to celebrate the Fourth of July with US troops," but in his first remarks to reporters the vice president indicated that politics was at the heart of his unannounced visit.
"I think the country is in the position where in one sense it looks the most difficult putting the government together, but in another sense this is local politics," he said.
"This is not a lot different than any other government," he said, adding that "the parties are all talking. I remain extremely optimistic about a government being formed here that will be representative."
Iraq's political scene has been in stalemate since the March national poll failed to produce a clear winner. Former prime minister Iyad Allawi narrowly defeated incumbent premier Nuri al-Maliki, but neither won the 163 seats needed to form a majority government in a new 325-seat parliament.
Biden was greeted by Christopher Hill, the US ambassador to Baghdad, General Ray Odierno, the US commander in Iraq, and later received briefings by both men.
He was also met by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari upon his arrival at about 5:30 pm (1430 GMT).
Minutes after landing he met and shook hands with John McCain, Joseph Lieberman and Lindsey Graham, US senators who landed Friday night on a separate visit to the Iraqi capital.
The three hawkish senators had earlier urged Iraqi leaders to act faster to form a coalition after meeting in Baghdad with Allawi and Maliki.
"We of course urge that there be a selection of a government that represents the results of the election and the will of the people," said McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"We are hopeful that the negotiations that are taking place between the respective parties will resolve in the formation of the government as soon as possible," the former presidential candidate told a news conference.
Lieberman, an independent, said the United States was keen to ensure its "ally" Iraq got a good government.
"Most important to us are two things: one is the government formed reflects all the people who voted in the election; and secondly that it be a nationalistic, independent government. Iraq for Iraqis," said Lieberman.
McCain said he and his colleagues had made no recommendation on the formation of the new government.
"But we obviously have urged that they move forward with as much speed and efficiency as possible," he added.
Biden last visited Iraq in January when he came to try to defuse a political crisis after hundreds of candidates were barred from the poll in March over alleged links to now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein.
The United States has stepped up its diplomatic efforts in the past few weeks to help Iraq fill the prolonged power vacuum since the general election.
Last month, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman held talks with all of Iraq's main political leaders in a bid to promote an inclusive deal.
Washington is concerned about the lack of political progress as it is aiming to withdraw its combat troops from Iraq by the end of August.
There are currently 77,500 American soldiers in the country, but this is due to fall to 50,000 by September 1.
A senior aide to Biden insisted that the troop withdrawal would go ahead as planned and would not be affected by the political hiatus in Baghdad.
Biden will meet with Maliki and Allawi on Sunday, as well as Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, aides told AFP.
Soon after arriving in Iraq he met with the UN envoy to Iraq, Ad Melkert.

Sunday, July 4th 2010
Arthur MacMillan

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