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The vice president bears good news from Iraq

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By David Ignatius
Sunday, April 11, 2010

Vice President Biden didn't use the jinxed phrase "mission accomplished." But he offered an optimistic assessment of Iraq after last month's parliamentary election, saying that Iran's covert bid for influence there had been "clobbered" and that Baghdad appears headed toward an "inclusive" coalition government.

"Politics has finally broken out in Iraq," Biden said in an interview Thursday. "Everyone is in on the deal, and it's real."

Biden's upbeat comments came days after a new wave of attacks raised fears that Iraq might be slipping back toward sectarian violence. His staff proposed the interview in an effort to counter these worries and to show where U.S. "red lines" are drawn in this delicate post-election period.

Biden said he has "made it clear to everyone involved" that the United States believes the March 7 election was fair and opposes any illegitimate effort to overturn the result. He said that next year the United States will still have up to 50,000 troops in Iraq "that will be able to shoot straight" and it would consider any government request for help if major sectarian violence were to resume.

The vice president is always enthusiastic, and Thursday's conversation was no exception, with Biden hitting all the positive "talking points." But he also offered some detailed evidence that Iraqi politicians are converging toward some form of coalition government.

Biden began by discussing the three bloody attacks that have taken place this month. He said that at least two were the work of remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq, but that this group's "capacity is significantly diminished" and that it is failing in its goal "to set the sectarian spark again" and disrupt the formation of a government.

The al-Qaeda attacks have prodded the Iraqi government to "keep the foot on the pedal" against the terrorist threat, Biden said. The tempo of daily counterterrorism operations increased last week to a dozen or so, compared with one or two a day just after the election. The Iraqis have also agreed to share more intelligence with the United States.

As for Iran's bid for influence, Biden was emphatic in arguing that it had failed. He disclosed that Tehran had spent up to $100 million to back the Shiite religious parties and subvert the Iraqiya bloc, a secular Sunni-Shiite alliance headed by Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister. Bolstered by a strong Sunni turnout, Iraqiya ended up winning the largest number of seats.

"It was a real stick in the eye of the Iranians," Biden said of Tehran's unsuccessful campaign to steer the election outcome. What's more, he said, Tehran's post-election effort to pressure Iraqi leaders who visited Tehran "has turned out to backfire." Iraqi politicians had discovered "there's a real price to be paid . . . if it looks like you are seeking the approval or following the direction of the Iranians or any neighbor."

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and some other Shiite politicians had initially indicated that they would challenge the election results. But Biden noted that according to a new U.S. poll, 80 percent of Iraqis thought the voting was fair. Those opposing a recount now include two key Shiite leaders, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and Ammar al-Hakim, head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, known as ISCI.

Biden said that "it's necessary for Iraq" to have a broad coalition government that draws together the major ethnic groups and parties. He predicted that major cabinet positions would be divided among Iraqiya, ISCI, the Kurdish parties and Maliki's "State of Law" coalition. "Everything we are getting back from all the parties acknowledges that it should include all four," he said.

Biden refused to take sides regarding who should be the next prime minister. He praised Allawi as "the guy who reached across Sunni and Shiite," but he also credited Maliki for refusing to join an all-Shiite coalition before the election. He also had kind words for ISCI and the Kurdish parties.

The trickiest question for an Obama administration that campaigned on a program of withdrawal from Iraq is how to stay active there, even as American troops come home by the end of next year. Biden said that question comes up in nearly every conversation he has with Iraqis -- "Now you guys are sticking, right?"

"We plan on staying engaged," Biden said he told Maliki last week -- especially in the non-military areas that the United States hopes will part of a stable, long-term relationship.

The paradox of Iraq is that to get out successfully, the United States must show that it's still involved for now. The vice president's comments send the right signal.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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