BAGHDAD // The US vice president, Joe Biden, met Iraqi leaders yesterday amid a simmering political crisis that threatens to derail March's election and that could even delay plans for a complete withdrawal of United States troops by the end of next year. Officially, the visit - his third to Baghdad since being encharged with overseeing an orderly US pull-out - was not specifically related to the deepening political row that erupted after more than 500 candidates were barred from standing for parliament. In reality, however, there is little doubt Mr Biden's trip was designed to push Iraq's feuding political groups into finding a speedy resolution to a dangerous impasse.
Iraqi and US officials publicly insisted there was no question of direct intervention by Washington in Baghdad's domestic affairs, but in a series of telephone calls to senior Iraqi politicians last week Mr Biden reportedly urged a postponement in the election blacklist until after the polls had taken place. The blacklist, drawn up by a committee, banned hundreds of cadidates from running for parliament over alleged links to the Baath Party or Saddam Hussein's security apparatus.
Many of those on the list were nationalists or from secular parties likely to challenge the power of ruling sectarian Shiite groups. Those same groups controlled the committee issuing the ban. The blacklist and the committee behind it are subject to a judicial review. If the Supreme Court upholds the banning orders, various mainstream political blocs, including that of Salah al Mutlaq, one of the leading figures named on the list, could boycott the election entirely, just as Sunnis largely boycotted the 2005 vote. If that happens the resulting parliament will be viewed by many nationalists and secular groups as illegitimate, a view apt to reignite a waning insurgency.
While Mr Biden may have intended to broker a compromise, his very presence at such a sensitive time has perhaps only widened the gulf between those who support the blacklist and those who see it as a blow Iraq's fledgling democracy. "Joe Biden is here to help save the next election and it comes at a time of serious political conflict," said Mahmoud Othman, a leading MP with the Kurdish Alliance. "The US proposal for a delay in the election list is the only solution if we are to avert this crisis. If we do not deal with it properly the political process will collapse and there will be no election in March."
That view was not shared by the Dawa party of the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, which has been supportive of the blacklist and wants to show to a domestic audience it does not simply follow US orders. "Mr Biden's visit [and] interference in Iraqi matters is only going to encourage militias who say the [Iraqi] government is weak and under American control to increase their activities," said Mohammad al Toreji, a Dawa party member standing for parliament in Kerbala.
"And the solution Mr Biden is offering [delaying the implementation of a blacklist] is no solution at all. "The blacklist is an essential move and is the only way to rid Iraq of the Baathists who sent the country to hell for so many decades. "They must not be allowed to take part in the political process," he said. email@example.com