BAGHDAD — Vice President Joe Biden returned Saturday to Iraq to coax its government into picking a new prime minister, months after elections left the nascent democracy in a state of gridlock as the U.S. prepares to pull out its troops.
Biden's trip – 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.
The vice president was upbeat upon arrival, downplaying concerns that the impasse would lead to a crisis.
"This is local politics," Biden told reporters in brief remarks at the sprawling U.S. military base west of Baghdad known as Camp Victory. "This is not a lot different than any other government."
He added: "I remain, as I have from the beginning, extremely optimistic about the government being formed here."
Iraqi officials appeared cool to the prospect of Biden muscling in on their political scene.
"The aim of Biden's visit is not to impose a point of view nor an attempt to interfere in Iraq's political process," said Yassin Majid, an adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He said Biden and the prime minister would meet Sunday to discuss plans for U.S. troops to leave Iraq and ways to deepen ties between the two countries – as well as ways to build the new government.
Biden's aides were quick to note that he only will offer help if it was requested, and not advocate for any specific coalition or agenda – other than an end to the delay that has, in turn, pushed back resolution of a number of issues facing Iraq.
He also is set to meet Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi during the long July Fourth weekend he is in Iraq. Biden also plans to meet with troops and will attend a naturalization ceremony Sunday morning.
Al-Maliki, a Shiite, is battling to keep his job after Iraqiya, a Sunni-backed coalition, narrowly won the most seats in the March vote. But al-Maliki has tried to outmaneuver his challengers by creating a super-Shiite alliance that would give him more seats in parliament than Iraqiya, which is headed by Allawi, his chief rival.
Iraq's newly elected parliament is scheduled to meet later this month for the second time since the vote. Lawmakers have only about a month to end the political deadlock before the start of Ramadan in August, when little official business gets done.
Adding to the urgency, all but 50,000 U.S. troops are set to leave Iraq by the end of August in a test of whether the fledgling democracy's security forces are ready to protect its people from insurgents and other terror threats.
Persistent violence has raised fears that al-Qaida in Iraq and other militants are trying to exploit the political deadlock to foment unrest and derail security gains as the American military prepares to withdraw all its troops by the end of next year.
Top Obama administration officials have resisted visiting during the deadlock, worried about being seen as meddling in the sovereign nation's politics. Biden, however, noted Saturday that relations between rivals are beginning to thaw, as "the parties are all talking," said he expected the new government to represent all sides.
Analysts and some Iraqi lawmakers fear that it still could take months. Iraq expert Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, said Biden's visit could speed the pace.
"Biden can carefully, but still clearly, remind Iraqi politicians that the future relationship of their country with the U.S. is not yet guaranteed to be close or alliance-like," O'Hanlon said Saturday. "Their own actions will have much to say about whether Congress and American people will ultimately support such a continued relationship – including military cooperation to economic aid to strong private sector ties."
The top Iraqi to greet Biden on Saturday was Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, who has previously accused the U.S. of being more focused on the U.S. troops withdrawal than on breaking the political gridlock. There are currently about 77,500 U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq.
Upon arrival, the vice president immediately met with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill, the top American military commander in Iraq, U.S. Army Gen. Ray Odierno, and the top U.N. envoy to Iraq, Ad Melkert.