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Biden meets with Iraqi leaders

Vice President Joe Biden meets with Iraqi leaders locked in an impasse four months after an inconclusive vote and expresses hope they would not delay much longer in forming a government, Iraqi officials say.
/ Source: NBC News and news services

Vice President Joe Biden on Sunday met Iraqi leaders locked in an impasse four months after an inconclusive vote and expressed hope they would not delay much longer in forming a government, Iraqi officials said.

In talks with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the top vote winner in the March 7 election, ex-Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, Biden stressed U.S. support for democracy in Iraq, Allawi said.

Biden and other U.S. officials said Washington had a long-term commitment to the country despite a plan to end combat operations in August and withdraw completely next year.

"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.

Allawi turned up slightly late for a meeting with Biden after being snarled up in what his aides said were the vice president's security measures.

"The talks were along the lines of supporting democracy in Iraq and the results of the election," he told reporters.

Talks on a coalition and picking a prime minister have made little headway since the 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 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.

Biden and other U.S. officials said they did not intend to unduly pressure Iraqi politicians to pick up the pace of coalition talks, and have downplayed any concerns they have.

"Not long ago Iraq was a country on the brink of civil war. This is my 15th, 16th, 17th trip here, and every time I come ... it gets better," Biden told U.S. troops earlier at the main U.S. military base in Iraq, near Baghdad's international airport.

"The thing I love so much about the day is the irony," Biden told dozens of soldiers during an Independence Day naturalization ceremony in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces.

"Here we are in the hunting lodge of a dictator who subjugated a people, who in fact stood for everything that we don't stand for, and we are in the middle of this marble palace making a lie of everything that he stood for. I find it delicious."

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 wounded but still lethal insurgency.

Biden's trip to Iraq — his fifth since he was elected vice president, and his second this year — signals Washington's growing impatience with Iraq's stalled political process since the March 7 vote. The Iraqi election failed to produce a clear winner, and competing political alliances have been angling to secure an edge in parliament — mostly through backroom deals that leave voters out of the process.

Biden's wife, Jill Biden, who accompanied him on the trip, planned to attend several Independence Day activities and visit with National Guard soldiers about to redeploy home to discuss the challenges facing military families, NBC News' Andrea Mitchell reported from Baghdad. She will also participate in a teacher-training program with Iraqi women who teach English.

It is Jill Biden's first visit to Iraq, where the Biden's son Beau served from October 2008 to October 2009.

The Bidens' precise travel schedule and events on the ground are not being made public until after they have taken place. During a previous visit by Biden to Baghdad in September, rockets were fired at the U.S. Embassy compound shortly after he arrived.