Biden's visit to Iraq raises questions about Iraq's future

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 3, 2009 

BAGHDAD — Vice President Joe Biden's surprise two-day visit this weekend to Iraq was meant to "re-establish contact" with leaders here, but some Iraqis bristled at the messenger more than the message.

Biden is well known in Iraq for his earlier support of a plan to give three-way autonomy to each major ethnic group here — Sunni Arab, Shiite Arab and Kurd — under a central government.

Protestors burned an American flag in Sadr City, a crowded Baghdad slum, and chanted, "No, no for occupation! No, no for America!" One of them, Mohammed Kathem, 40, an administrator, said many of the protestors hit the streets after an imam encouraged them to do so at Friday prayers. "Biden's visit sent the signal to us that Iraq will be divided," he said. "Biden's background doesn't allow him to play any role in reconciliation."

The vice president's visit came three days after the U.S. military withdrew its combat forces from major Iraqi cities. Maliki declared June 30 "Sovereignty Day" and a national holiday.

Even so, the government of Iraq remains deeply divided on many issues. The main one is Kurdistan in northern Iraq, which has been acting on its own, for example, in selling oil and resisting central government political control. A stalemate in parliament over amending the constitution has stymied progress on that issue.

As President Barack Obama's emissary to Iraq, Biden met with Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and other Iraqi officials. He was scheduled to spend July 4 with U.S. troops.

Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, met the vice president as he stepped off the airplane. Biden's son is stationed in Iraq as a National Guard captain, and father and son met Friday.

Biden's portfolio wasn't disclosed, but it's clear that he came to assess Iraq's intentions and ability to reach consensus on those and other issues — especially with a 2011 deadline looming for removal of all U.S. forces. President Obama has made his concern public about the lack of political progress.

Some Iraqis suggested that the vice president's message of reconciliation among political parties and religious factions was at odds with his call for "decentralization" in 2006.

As recently as the presidential campaign last September, Biden didn't back away from that position. "They may not want to call it what I was talking about," he told reporters in Montana. "But the end result is, there is a lot of autonomy in the Anbar province today. There is a lot of autonomy up in the Kurdish area today. And there is increasing autonomy in the Shia regions."

Haider al Mosawi, a political analyst, said that the vice president "was here to see whether Iraqis can reconcile in the absence of Americans or he can submit his old project again if it isn't useful to support reconciliation forever."

A lawmaker from the Sadrist bloc in parliament, Nassar al Rubai'ee, insisted that "reconciliation can be solved only by Iraqis."

In his Friday prayer, Hashim al Ta'e, an Islamic Party parliamentarian, called for Biden to work to solve the Iranian nuclear weapons issue, saying, "If this isn't solved, Iraq will not be stabilized."

However, Ahmed Anwar, a Kurdish member of parliament, viewed Biden's visit as a signal that the U.S. government "is concerned about political reconciliation and wants to make Iraq a strategic partner" in the region.

Joost Hiltermann, deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa of the International Crisis Group, applauded Obama's choice of Biden for this visit because of his importance in the administration: "Biden has clearly indicated that he never supported the breakup of Iraq via partition, that his proposals were consistent with the Iraqi constitution and that he made them at the height of a civil war, while today conditions have improved quite a lot."

Meanwhile, confusion continued over just what the U.S. military' s role in Iraq will be after the June 30 pullback — sometimes only a few miles — in major cities. On Thursday the Iraqi Baghdad Operations Center published an order prohibiting all American troop movement anywhere within Baghdad. A later order clarified that supply convoys would be allowed to travel at night.

(Special correspondents Mohammed al Dulaimy, Laith Hammoudi and Jenan Hussein contributed to this report.)

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