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US Vice President Cheney Makes Surprise Visit to Iraq

Vice President Dick Cheney has praised last week's Iraqi elections during a surprise visit to Baghdad.

Mr. Cheney described Iraqi voter participation in parliamentary elections as "remarkable," adding that successful balloting is critical if Iraq is to build a political structure for a self-governing nation that can unify the population and ultimately take responsibility for the country's security.

The vice president made the comments in Baghdad after meeting with U.S. military commanders as well as Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

The visit was so secret that senior Iraqi officials were unaware of his presence prior to meeting with him. While touring several Baghdad-area military installations, Mr. Cheney repeated his contention that a premature withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq is not an option.

In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice echoed the vice president's upbeat assessment of Iraq's fledgling democracy on NBC's Meet the Press program.

"We believe that the Iraqis are now going to engage in a process which gives them a real chance at a broadly-representative government," she said. "It is an Iraqi process, but all of the Iraqis with whom you talk seem to understand that this is their real chance to build a unified Iraq in which everybody has a part. And while I think that government formation is not going to be easy, I have head a number of leaders - Sunni, Shia and Kurd - say that their goal is to find people across [political and ethnic] lines with whom they can work."

But a leading Democratic Senator, Joe Biden of Delaware, said elections will not solve Iraq's problems. Speaking on the CBS program Face the Nation, Mr. Biden pointed out that ballot results are not yet known and it is impossible to know, at this point, what type of government Iraq will possess or how it will act. Summing up his view of the elections, the senator has this to say.

"[They are] necessary, not sufficient, the next six months are going to tell the story," he said. "Two important things: what is the government going to look like. Number two, if there is not a consensus constitution that is voted on six months from today where the Sunnis buy in, then we got a full-blown civil war."

More than 70 percent of Iraq's 15 million eligible voters are believed to have cast ballots for the 275-seat parliament. Results are not expected for about two weeks.

The vice president is also expected to visit Afghanistan, where he is to attend the opening of the country's new, democratically elected parliament Monday in Kabul.