January 23, 2010 in Nation/World

Biden visits Baghdad, hoping to ease tensions

Liz Sly Los Angeles Times
Associated Press photo

Vice President Joseph Biden, center, poses for a photo with Gen. Raymond Odierno, left, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill in Baghdad on Friday.
(Full-size photo)

BAGHDAD – Vice President Joe Biden flew into Baghdad on Friday night with a mission to ease rising tensions over the barring of hundreds of mostly secular candidates from competing in the country’s upcoming election.

U.S. officials said Biden’s visit, his third to Iraq as vice president, had been planned weeks in advance as a routine engagement with Iraqi leaders ahead of the drawdown of American troops later this year.

But the controversial decision by an Iraqi government commission to ban at least 511 candidates because of their suspected ties to the outlawed Baath Party of the former regime has added a sense of urgency to the vice president’s meetings today with Iraqi leaders.

Biden’s national security adviser Antony Blinken said the vice president would offer no specific proposals to end the controversy, but would emphasize the Obama administration’s concern that the electoral process should be transparent and inclusive.

The disqualification of candidates, who mostly belong to secular and Sunni Arab-dominated parties, has given rise to concerns that many members of Iraq’s Sunni minority will feel disenfranchised and refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the next government. Though the current government, dominated by Shiite Muslim religious parties, had rushed to lend its support to the ban, U.S. officials say they have detected signs that some leaders are starting to have second thoughts about going ahead with the potentially divisive move.

A day earlier, Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani questioned the legality of the Accountability and Justice Commission, which ordered the bans, becoming the first senior Iraqi official to challenge the decision. Talabani’s office announced Friday that a meeting would be held today involving the presidency council, the prime minister, the speaker of parliament and the head of the Supreme Court to review the disbarments.

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