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Biden visits Iraq amid election row
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Vice President Joe Biden told Iraqi officials on Saturday the United States backed a ban on Saddam Hussein's Baath party and said he had faith Iraq would resolve a row over the banning of election candidates suspected of links to it.
The move by an independent panel has outraged Sunnis who dominated Iraq for more than two decades under Saddam and who see it as an attempt to marginalize their community, casting doubt on the inclusiveness and legitimacy of a March 7 vote.
U.S. officials say the arbitrary way the list appears to have been drawn up and the questionable legitimacy of the panel could undermine the election.
But Biden, on his third visit to Iraq since U.S. troops pulled out of city centers in June, said Washington had no problem with holding Baath party loyalists accountable.
"I want to make clear I am not here to resolve that issue (of the banned candidates). This is for Iraqis, not for me. I am confident that Iraq's leaders are seized with this issue and are working for a final, just solution," Biden said.
"The United States condemns the crimes of the previous regime and we fully support Iraq's constitutional ban on the return to power of Saddam's Baath party."
The sectarian violence between minority Sunnis and majority Shi'ites unleashed by the 2003 U.S. invasion has begun to fade.
But Iraq's security remains fragile, and is frequently put to the test by suicide bombings and killings carried out by suspected Sunni Islamist insurgents such as al Qaeda, or attacks U.S. officials blame on Shi'ite militia supported by Iran.
The March election is a test of whether Iraq can sustain the growing peace and build a future of stability and prosperity on the back of multibillion-dollar contracts the country has started to sign with global oil companies.
IRAQIS SAY NEED NO HELP
Iraqi officials campaigning for the election on a platform of having cut violence and having restored Iraqi sovereignty by getting the United States to agree to withdraw by end-2011, made it clear they did not need nor seek U.S. interference.
"The issue of accountability and justice is an Iraqi issue and there is no foreign role in it, nor is there a role for foreign influence," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told Reuters after Biden met Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
The 511 banned candidates can appeal to a panel and Iraqi leaders were due to hold a meeting to find a resolution.
Sunnis largely boycotted the last national elections in 2005, feeding resentment and fuelling the insurgency against U.S. troops and the Shi'ite-led government. That could happen again if Sunnis feel unfairly excluded from this election.
The list of banned candidates actually included more Shi'ite politicians than Sunnis. It was weighted against secular groups expected to fare well in the election against the Shi'ite Islamist parties that have dominated Iraq since the invasion.
More of the 6,500 candidates in total standing in the election are expected to be banned for other reasons, such as for having criminal records or using fake university degrees.
One of the officials Biden met was Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani, who is presiding over deals with oil firms that could catapult Iraq to third place from 11th among oil producing nations and make its crude output rival Saudi Arabia's.
"I just want to say in light of your newfound prosperity, I'm available for adoption," Biden joked during a photo call.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by Janet Lawrence)
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