Biden demands 'fair, credible' Iraq election

by Arthur MacMillan

Jan 23, 2010 at 18:28

BAGHDAD - US Vice President Joe Biden said on Saturday he was confident Iraq's leaders would find a "just" solution to the bitter row that has seen hundreds of candidates banned from a March 7 general election.

Biden landed in Baghdad late on Friday and used meetings with the war-torn country's leaders to assure them that Washington would not interfere in the dispute which has seen both Sunni Arabs and Shiites excluded from the poll.

Analysts, however, told AFP the vice president's words had failed to conceal the reality that it was a "rescue mission" aimed at navigating a serious political crisis which remains unsolved.

The 511 candidates banned from taking part are accused of membership or other links to executed dictator Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath party, feared Fedayeen (Men of Sacrifice) militia or Mukhabarat intelligence agency.

The dispute has stoked tension between the Shiite majority now leading the government and the Sunni Arab former elite and has also exposed the failings of a much vaunted but apparently stumbling national reconciliation process.

"I want to make it clear I am not here to resolve that issue," said Biden at a joint press conference with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

"This is for Iraqis to do, not for me. After today's discussions though I am confident that Iraq's leaders are seized with the problem and are working for a final, just solution."

Biden said the United States supported the exclusion of candidates linked to Saddam's regime but urged legitimate procedures.

"The issue is not the goal of holding individuals accountable for their past actions but the process of disqualification itself," Biden said.

"Iraqis under their leaders understand that if the people see the process as fair and transparent it will enhance the credibility of the election."

As well as Talabani, Biden met Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, parliament speaker Iyad al-Samarrai, the UN secretary general's special representative for Iraq, Ad Melkert, and a cross-section of other political leaders.

Saleh al-Mutlak, a leading Sunni MP and persistent critic of Maliki's Shiite-dominated government, is among those who have been barred from the election. Maliki has denied that Sunnis have been targeted ahead of the vote.

The election row sparked a flurry of contacts by Biden in recent days aimed at brokering a compromise, notably through Talabani, who is a Kurd.

Biden "proposed that the disqualifications be deferred until after the election and that those candidates who have been barred condemn and disavow the Baath party," said a statement from Talabani's office earlier this week.

Joost Hiltermann, a Washington-based Iraq specialist and Middle East deputy programme director for the International Crisis Group, which studies conflict-hit nations, said Biden's visit had not gone far enough.

"Whatever the long-term planning may have been, his visit was clearly a rescue mission, certainly in the public eye, which is what counts," Hiltermann said.

"On paper, out of deference to Iraqi sovereignty and Iraqis' strong sense of national pride, he listened rather than proposing solutions.

"Suggesting that the actual barring of candidates be postponed till after the elections was good but insufficient. It could lead to a big crisis when the election results come in, especially if people allied to Mutlak amass a lot of additional 'sympathy' votes."

Reider Visser, who runs the Iraq-focused website, said Biden had always faced a difficult task.

"US leverage is limited because American forces are on their way out anyway," he said.

"At most, then, one can guess that Biden may have asked Iraqi leaders to make sure the appeals mechanisms reinstate some of the barred politicians, thereby reducing the sense of marginalisation."

Elections chief Faraj al-Haidari told AFP on Friday that more candidates could yet be barred from the ballot, after the government published lists naming individuals "who have criminal records or false diplomas.".