January 24, 2010
US Vice President Joe Biden says Iraq's March 7 election must be fair, credible and transparent but insists Washington will not interfere in a simmering row over barred candidates.
Biden landed in Baghdad late on Friday for 24 hours of discussions aimed at brokering a compromise over a controversial blacklist that has seen both Sunni Arabs and Shi'ites excluded just six weeks from the poll.
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told AFP on Saturday that Biden's early talks had focused on general diplomatic relations between the two countries and security matters but the elections had also been discussed.
"He made the point that they want to see a transparent, fair election that has credibility, both for the Iraqi people and foreign people, but how you do it is your business," said Zebari, who attended some of the meetings.
Zebari, however, stressed Biden fully accepted that the dispute was for Iraqi leaders to resolve.
"Everyone is aware that the time (until the elections) is closing and this issue has to be resolved through legal means," Zebari said, referring to an appeals process through which barred candidates can have the decision reversed.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh added: "He (Biden) clearly said that this is an Iraqi issue and he is not willing to interfere with the legal and constitutional process."
The 511-strong blacklist is filled with candidates accused of being members of executed dictator Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath party, feared Fedayeen (Men of Sacrifice) militia or Mukhabarat intelligence agency.
The dispute has stoked tension between the Shi'ite majority now leading the government and the Sunni Arab former elite and has also exposed the failings of a much vaunted but apparently stumbling national reconciliation process.
Biden met Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, parliament speaker Iyad al-Samarrai and the UN secretary general's special representative for Iraq, Ad Melkert.
He was also scheduled to meet President Jalal Talabani as well as senior government ministers and a cross-section of other political leaders.
A senior White House aide earlier insisted that Biden was not wading into the row but would listen and then give his advice if asked.
"We want to be as helpful as the Iraqis want us to be in helping them resolve these problems," Tony Blinken, Biden's national security adviser, told reporters.
Saleh al-Mutlak, a leading Sunni MP and persistent critic of the Shi'ite-dominated government, is among those who have been barred, although Maliki has denied that Sunnis have been targeted ahead of the election.
The election row sparked a flurry of contacts by Biden in recent days aimed at brokering a compromise, notably through President Talabani, who is a Kurd.
Biden "proposed that the disqualifications be deferred until after the election and that those candidates who have been barred condemn and disavow the Baath party and undertake to act through democratic means," Talabani said before Biden landed in Baghdad.
Elections chief Faraj al-Haidari told AFP more candidates could yet be barred from the ballot, with the defence and interior ministries publishing lists naming individuals "who have criminal records or false diplomas".
Biden has repeatedly voiced concern about lingering feuds between Iraq's Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish communities causing obstacles to political progress.
On Friday, the Iraqi government said the disqualified candidates would have to denounce Saddam's regime and its crimes in order to reintegrate into society, without specifically offering reinstatement on ballot papers.