Biden nudges Iraqi leaders to end deadlock
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Vice President Joe Biden urged Iraqi leaders on Sunday to press ahead and form a government after four months of post-election deadlock but said neither Washington nor anyone else should dictate to them.
In talks with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the top vote winner in the March 7 election, ex-Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, Biden promised U.S. support for Iraq's democracy as it emerges from sectarian war but struggles to halt a stubborn insurgency.
He said Washington had a long-term commitment to Iraq despite plans to end U.S. combat operations in August and withdraw completely next year, and cautioned Iraq against falling under the sway of other nations in the region.
"You should not, and I'm sure you will not, let any state -- from the United States to any state in the region -- dictate what will become of you," Biden told Iraqi leaders at a reception at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
"So my plea to you is finish what you started through legitimate representative government that meets the needs and aspirations of all Iraqi people."
Biden did not name any of Iraq's neighbors, but all to some extent have been jostling for influence -- particularly Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Talks on a coalition and picking a prime minister have made little headway since the March ballot, raising concerns for stability as insurgents try to exploit the political vacuum through attacks to reignite all-out sectarian war.
The continuing violence has raised questions about the U.S. military's plans to cut its numbers to 50,000 by September 1 from 80,000 now, and end combat operations as it devotes all its efforts to training and assisting Iraqi police and troops.
Three people were killed on Sunday when a suicide bomber blew herself up in the governor's office in the western province of Anbar, once the heartland of the Sunni Islamist insurgency that broke out after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
At least two mortar rounds landed late on Sunday in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone where government offices, and embassies, including that of the United States, are located, police said. They did not appear to have been close to the U.S. embassy.
In a statement issued after his meeting with Biden, Maliki said he expected political blocs to agree on the distribution of main government posts before the next parliamentary session, due on July 14. The prime minister is seeking a second term.
Allawi turned up slightly late for his meeting with Biden after being snarled up in what his aides said were the vice president's security measures.
"Vice President Biden came with no specific suggestions but an interest in the stability of Iraq and ... in (us) not prolonging the process of forming the government," said Allawi.
SENSITIVE TO INTERFERENCE
In a statement that coincided with Biden's visit but did not mention him, fiery anti-U.S. Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al Sadr advised Maliki and Allawi to make sure their political steps followed an "Iraqi agenda, not an American one."
Iraqi nationalism is on the rise ahead of next year's U.S. withdrawal, and Biden and other U.S. officials stressed they did not intend to exert pressure on Iraqi politicians over the pace of coalition talks.
A cross-sectarian bloc headed by Allawi took a two-seat lead in the March election on strong backing from Sunnis who view Allawi, despite his Shi'ite background, as a secular and strong leader who would counter Iranian influence.
A union between the Shi'ite blocs, however, including Maliki's State of Law, is expected to beat Allawi's Iraqiya in the tussle to gain a governing majority. Sunnis could react angrily if Allawi fails to become prime minister, reinvigorating a diminished but still dangerous insurgency.