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Iraq declines offer of U.S. help with reconciliation

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq on Saturday ruled out foreign involvement in its efforts to reconcile rival factions, just after visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden urged Iraqis to do more to bury grievances and stave off renewed conflict.

Biden, on a three-day visit, offered U.S. help in what he said was a long road ahead in uniting a country deeply split by years of sectarian war and riven by violence.

But Iraq has been forcefully asserting a newfound sovereignty in the week U.S. combat troops pulled out of city centers, a milestone that was feted by flowers and dancing.

“We made it clear that national reconciliation is an Iraqi issue and involvement of a non-Iraqi party won’t make it more successful,” said government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh.

“There is sensitivity in the national reconciliation issue about involving non-Iraqi actors,” he told reporters at a meeting in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone.

Even with 130,000 U.S. troops remaining in Iraq and local forces still reliant on U.S. soldiers for air support and other help, the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has been distancing itself from the ongoing U.S. presence.

While many Iraqis credit the U.S. troops for helping to restore order at the height of the sectarian fighting, most want an end to the foreign occupation of their country.

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Playing on nationalism served Maliki well in a provincial vote this year, when his call for a strong centralized state helped his allies win throughout the Shi’ite south.

He appears to be honing a similar campaign strategy ahead of a national election in January.

Violence has dropped sharply, but insurgents regularly stage dramatic attacks that fray already strained ties between majority Shi’ite Arabs, minority Sunni Arabs and ethnic Kurds.

U.S. forces pulled out of Iraq’s towns and cities this week under the terms of a bilateral security pact that paves the way for a full U.S. withdrawal by 2012, raising concerns Iraq has not made enough political progress to prevent more fighting.

But as the United States turns its attention to Afghanistan and moves ahead with a plan to end the unpopular Iraq war, Obama has pledged to halt combat operations in Iraq in August 2010.

During his meetings with Maliki on Friday, Biden warned resurgent sectarian or ethnic violence in Iraq was “not something that would make it likely that we’d stay engaged,” a U.S. official told reporters.

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He added in Washington, there is no longer “any appetite to put Humpty Dumpty back together again,” should Iraq fall apart.

Maliki has tried to woo Sunni politicians with a crackdown on Shi’ite militias last year and with an amnesty law that released of thousands of Sunni Arab prisoners.

He has reached out to former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party, but only those with no “blood on their hands” and who renounce Baathism, conditions some Sunni Arabs believe reveals lingering grudges against Sunnis.

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“National reconciliation, for sure, doesn’t include the Baath Party. The Baath Party is rejected by all Iraqis,” Dabbagh said. “We are talking about individuals, not accused of killing, torture or crimes against Iraqis, who joined the Baath Party. (Those) will have all the political rights others enjoy.”

BIDEN MEETS BIDEN

On the third day of his visit, Baghdad still cloaked in a lengthy sandstorms that has thwarted many of his planned visits, Biden met U.S. troops preparing to mark their Independence Day holiday on Saturday.

Biden, who U.S. President Barack Obama has asked to take a leading role in coordinating U.S. Iraq policy, also presided over a naturalization ceremony for 237 soldiers from 59 countries taking an oath of U.S. citizenship.

Due to the weather, Biden scrapped a planned trip to Iraq’s largely autonomous Kurdistan region to meet Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani.

After the citizenship ceremony, Biden went to the main mess hall at Camp Victory, where he met privately with the Delaware National Guard unit where his son, Beau, serves.

He walked through the main cafeteria, grasping soldiers’ hands and giving them hugs as they surveyed a July 4th menu of barbecued ribs, hamburgers and elaborately decorated cakes.

Additional reporting by Khalid al-Ansary; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Missy Ryan and Sophie Hares

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