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Biden arrives in Iraq in move to prevent election crisis

By Leila Fadel
Friday, January 22, 2010; 1:17 PM

BAGHDAD -- Vice President Biden arrived in Baghdad on Friday night in hopes of defusing a political crisis over the disbarment of hundreds of candidates in an upcoming election.

Biden is scheduled to meet with U.S. Ambassador Christopher R. Hill and Gen. Raymond Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, for dinner. He will meet with top Iraqi officials Saturday to try to help them resolve the electoral crisis.

The visit showcases U.S. concerns that the decision to bar 511 candidates -- the most prominent of whom are Sunni Arabs -- could stoke sectarian violence and undermine elections as the U.S. military prepares to significantly reduce its presence here. The removal of candidates purportedly adhering to the ideals of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party could reverse efforts to bring disenfranchised Sunni communities into the fold and inflame old divisions, wiping out the security gains of the U.S. surge.

If the Americans "fail in guaranteeing democracy, they should leave right away from Iraq, because their presence means nothing," said Saleh al-Mutlak, a prominent Sunni lawmaker now barred from running. "If they can't protect democracy, then what are they here for?"

U.S. officials are in a precarious position as they try to soften the effort to ban supposed Baathists. They are stuck between the government they created and bolstered -- a coalition of mostly sect- and ethnic-based coalitions dominated by Shiite Arabs -- and politicians who have been branded as loyalists to the dictator deposed during the U.S.-led invasion.

"The United States is very sensitive about the Sunni situation," said Ezzat Shahbandar, a secular Shiite lawmaker allied with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition.

On Thursday, President Jalal Talabani said he welcomed the visit by Biden but warned that the Iraqi government would not succumb to U.S. pressure.

Biden's visit follows a round of calls to top Iraqi officials, including Talabani and Maliki, suggesting that they postpone the vetting of candidates for Baathist connections until after the elections, Iraqi officials said.

U.S. officials have said rooting out Baathists from public office should be done in a transparent way, and they have raised concerns about the scope and timing of the disqualification effort in meetings with Iraqi officials.

Obama administration officials said that they knew the disqualifications were coming but that they were taken aback by the length of a list they initially were led to believe would contain no more than 15 candidates. After Biden's talks in the past week with Maliki, Talabani and others, the administration is convinced that Iraqi political leaders realize the seriousness of the situation and are "constructively engaged in looking for a way forward," said one senior administration official in Washington.

The problem, he said, is that "no one wants to be perceived as defending the rights of Baathists" and no Iraqi decision maker wants to be the first to publicly declare that the ruling must be reversed.

The administration is less concerned with how the problem is resolved than the speed with which a solution is found. If ballots are not printed within the next week to 10 days, the March date for the elections will be difficult to keep, the official said.

Talabani said Thursday that he would look into the legitimacy of the Accountability and Justice Commission, the group that proposed barring the candidates to Iraq's independent electoral commission. It was the first clear sign that top Iraqi officials are searching for a way to reverse the disqualifications, which have raised fears among Sunni Arabs that they will once again be shut out of the political process. Most Sunni Arabs boycotted the January 2005 elections as a way to protest the U.S. occupation or because of threatened violence.

"Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were forced to join the Baath Party in order to get on in life, and this must not be held against them," Talabani said.

In the past few days, Iraqi officials have held a series of meetings to look at examine ways to soften the disqualification effort. Some officials say that Maliki and other top officials are looking for a solution without violating Iraq's constitution.

"In the end, this whole subject will be dismissed and evaporate," said Nabil Khalil Saied, one of the barred candidates. "It will be difficult for the government to change 180 degrees, but they are going to create some kind of scenario, make up some story to try to avoid any kind of shame."

Correspondent Ernesto LondoƱo and special correspondent K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad and staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

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