Vice President Joe Biden’s mission to promote national reconciliation in Iraq was rebuffed Friday by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who told him that the issue was a domestic Iraqi affair and that U.S involvement wouldn’t be welcome.
Biden was beginning a two-day visit to Iraq after President Obama appointed him this week as his special representative on dealings with the Persian Gulf nation. His assignment, the White House said, is to work with Iraqis “toward overcoming their political differences and achieving the type of reconciliation that we all understand has yet to fully take place.”
But Biden’s meeting with Maliki was a reminder that although the U.S. maintains about 130,000 troops in Iraq, its influence is waning rapidly now that the clock is ticking on the timetable for the departure of all American combat troops next year.
Days earlier, Iraqis had celebrated the withdrawal of U.S. forces from their cities as a “day of national sovereignty.” And though Biden’s visit was welcomed as evidence that the United States doesn’t plan to completely disengage from Iraq, Maliki made it clear that he does not want U.S. officials to be as closely involved in Iraqi politics as they have been.
Maliki told Biden that “the reconciliation issue is a purely Iraqi issue and any non-Iraqi involvement might have a negative effect,” said Maliki’s spokesman, Ali Dabbagh. “We don’t want the Americans to come and get involved.”
Biden “received the message well, and he said he is ready to help whenever the Iraqi government asks,” Dabbagh said.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Biden said he had delivered a message from Obama emphasizing that the U.S. remains committed to Iraq’s success despite the troop pullback. Though there are still political steps that need to be taken, “Iraqis must use the political process to resolve their remaining differences and advance their national interest,” he said. “We stand ready if asked . . . to help in that process.”
A U.S. official traveling with Biden said the vice president went further than that, warning Maliki that if Iraq does not resolve its outstanding political disputes, it cannot continue to count on U.S. support.
Many crucial issues on which Iraqis are divided remain unresolved, including the future of the country’s oil and gas resources, the disputed boundaries of the semiautonomous Kurdish region in the north, and the question of how to reconcile the current political establishment with former members of the late Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. Any one of these could yet flare up to scuttle Iraq’s tentative and still fragile progress toward greater stability.
Obama’s awareness of the dangers of these unresolved issues prompted him to dispatch Biden on the mission, the official said. Biden told Maliki that if Iraq “actually reverts to violence, then that would change the nature of our engagement.”
Asked whether Iraq was amenable to U.S. offers of help, the official, who requested anonymity, said: “The short answer we got was, ‘Yes, we do want your help, and on some very specific issues.’ ”
Dabbagh, however, said those issues concern commerce and development, not politics. “On reconciliation, no. We feel Iraqis can do it by themselves, as it is an Iraqi issue,” he said.
Whether they can is another question. Though violence levels have fallen dramatically, most of the political disputes dividing Iraqis are no closer to being resolved than they were six years ago, after the U.S.-led invasion ousted Hussein. The staunchly pro-American Kurdish minority, which fears that it will be marginalized as U.S. forces withdraw, would welcome the Obama administration’s involvement in mediating these disputes, especially those concerning the borders of Kurdistan, said Kurdish legislator Mahmoud Othman.
Biden’s visit indicates “that America is not going to abandon Iraq, which is a good thing,” he said. But, he added, “if Iraqis themselves are not ready to reconcile, I don’t think Joe Biden can do it for them.”
Yet others questioned whether the vice president, who made numerous visits to Iraq as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was a good choice for Obama’s special envoy to Iraq given his past support of a controversial plan to divide the country into Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni cantons.
The proposal “would have led to the partition of Iraq, to bloodshed and wars between the sects over borders and resources, to the persecution of minorities and all kinds of problems,” said Sunni Arab lawmaker Osama Nujaifi, who added that he hoped Biden had since set that plan aside. “But I have my doubts,” he said.
Dabbagh said the Iraqi government is confident that Biden has abandoned the plan, and that it was not raised in his meetings with Iraqi officials.
Times staff writers Raheem Salman and Saif Hameed contributed to this report.