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US Vice President Meets Top Iraqi Leaders During Baghdad Visit

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden appears to be downplaying any U.S. role in the conflict, while attempting a low-key mediation effort between the warring parties.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is paying a low-profile visit to Baghdad to meet with top Iraqi leaders, as political bickering continues over a move to ban at least several hundred candidates with alleged ties to Saddam Hussein's Baath party. Sunni Arab leaders are up in arms over the decision, which could affect the strength of their electoral clout in upcoming parliamentary elections. Also Saturday, the vice president said the United States will apeal a court decision that dropped charges against American security contractors involved in a deadly shooting in Baghdad in 2007.

Vice President Biden's visit to Baghdad comes at a time of loud debate in Iraq's political arena in the lead-up to expected March parliamentary elections. Sunni political leaders continue to cry foul, after a decision by a mostly Shi'ite parliamentary committee to ban hundreds of candidates because of alleged ties to Saddam Hussein's Baath party.

The vice-president appears to be downplaying any U.S. role in the conflict, while attempting a low-key mediation effort between the warring parties. The fate of the March election, and ultimately the planned U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in August could be affected if the festering conflict were not to be resolved.

Mr. Biden spoke privately with the three top leaders of Iraq's political system, President Jalal Talabani, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and parliament speaker Ayad al-Sammaraie, amid speculation in the Iraqi press that he was offering a proposal to resolve the crisis.

President Talabani indicated several days ago that the Vice President had put forth the idea of shelving the decision to bar candidates with alleged ties to the Baath party, but making them sign a pledge to renounce dictatorship as well as the abuses of the party's long rule over the country.

Several Shi'ite members of parliament, including Falah Shansal and Maha Douri of Moqtada al-Sadr's political block, criticized the vice president for "meddling in Iraq's internal affairs."

Shi'ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government spokesman, Ali Debbagh, emphasized that Mr. Biden reassured the prime minister that he was not trying to intervene in the matter.

He says that the matter of the committee which barred the candidates is purely an Iraqi matter, as well as an internal issue, for Iraqis to discuss among themselves. He notes that Vice President Biden reassured Prime Minister Maliki that this is a problem for Iraqis to resolve, rather than the U.S. or himself.

He adds that a committee has been set up to arbitrate and investigate the electoral list and those candidates who have been barred from running by the de-baathification committee.

Iraq's Sunni vice president Tariq al-Hashemi, who contests the legitimacy of the Iraqi parliament de-Baathification committee which made the decision to bar 511 politicians from running in the March election, says that the committee has no legal basis to act.

He says that Iraq's presidential council sent a letter to parliament in March, 2008 saying that the de-Baathification committee must take on a care-taker role, since it has no authorization to apply the law [over purging former Ba'ath party members].

He argues that the present committee, which replaced the original one, should have had the approval of parliament, then of the presidential council [which it did not]. Therefore, he insists, the committee has no legal basis to exclude any Iraqi from political life.

Iraq's Sunni political leaders complain that the decision to bar hundreds of candidates from the March election was intended to marginalize their community and reduce its political clout. Shi'ite leaders insist that more Shi'ite candidates were barred from the election than Sunnis. President Jalal Talabani has set up a committee to investigate and ultimately resolve the conflict.