By Leila Fadel
Sunday, July 4, 2010; A14
BAGHDAD -- Vice President Biden made a surprise visit to Baghdad on Saturday for the July Fourth holiday in the midst of a political deadlock nearly four months after Iraq's national election.
Biden arrived at a time when many are questioning whether the U.S. policy in Iraq is adrift. Some Iraqi officials say they worry that the United States is concerned only about its exit from Iraq, and not the country's still shaky democracy, as its focus shifts toward the war in Afghanistan.
"A distant policy in this country is deemed as a weakness and also deemed as a failure," said Fawzi Hariri, Iraq's minister of industry. "It gives the wrong message to Syria and Iran, and it will give the wrong message to the Taliban."
Biden's visit, his fourth here as vice president, may be a signal to Iraq that the U.S. administration is still engaged. A White House statement said Biden would celebrate the holiday with the troops but also "reaffirm" the "long-term" U.S. commitment to Iraq and discuss recent developments.
Biden and his wife, Jill, were greeted by U.S. Ambassador Christopher R. Hill; Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq; Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari; and two other senior military commanders.
At Odierno's residence, where Biden met with Hill and the general, Biden said he was "optimistic" about the formation of a "representative" Iraqi government.
"In one sense, it looks the most difficult putting the government together. In another sense, this is local politics. This is not a lot different than any other government," Biden said. "The parties are all talking."
On Sunday, Biden will meet with former prime minister Ayad Allawi and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who are vying for Iraq's top job. Biden will meet with other Iraqi officials during his visit as well as spend time with the troops on the holiday.
"We're not here to offer a plan or solution. We are here to hear what the Iraqis have to say and to offer our advice if they want it," a senior administration official said.
Secular Shiite Allawi's Iraqiya bloc won the most seats in parliament in the March elections, with a razor-thin lead over Maliki's political bloc. Some say the two are nearing a deal that could break the deadlock. But others worry that without more U.S. pressure, neither will compromise enough to form a government.
"Even the most nationalist figures want American pressure right now," said Ezzat al Shahbandar, a Shiite from Maliki's State of Law bloc who is involved in political negotiations. "The Americans need to interfere now because the atmosphere is seething and we see no solution soon."
Senior administration officials traveling with Biden dismissed the criticism and said they were engaged daily -- hourly -- in Iraq. They also said there is no "link" between a scheduled drawdown of U.S. troops to 50,000 by the end of the summer and the formation of Iraq's government.
It is unclear when a government will be formed as political leaders make back-room deals for the top jobs.
"While the combat mission will be ending, the presence of combat troops will not. We're not flipping a light switch on Aug. 31," the senior administration official said. "Whether or not there is a government doesn't change the plans that we have to end the combat mission and be down to 50,000."
There are 77,500 troops in Iraq, according to Iraq's top U.S. military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza. At the height of the troop "surge," more than 165,000 troops were in the country.
"The Americans are leaving, and really right now is the most sensitive and critical time in Iraq's history," a senior Iraqi government official said. "It is a disaster if you just pick up and go without ensuring that an inclusive government is formed. They have to do more."
Biden's last visit to Iraq was widely criticized. He arrived after a series of Sunni and secular candidates were barred from running in the elections because of their supposed links to Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath party. Biden left without a solution to what was seen as a political crisis that deepened sectarian tensions, Iraqi officials said at the time.
Special correspondent Jinan Hussein contributed to this report.