Biden in Iraq, a message of urgency

Four months after the election, Iraq still has no new government. In a surprise visit over the July 4th weekend, Vice President Biden rightly urged leaders in Baghdad to form an inclusive government, one that puts national interests above those of individual politicians.

Vice President Joe Biden made a surprise visit to Iraq over the Fourth of July weekend, urging political leaders there to finally form a government – four months after national elections for a new parliament.

As President Obama’s highest-level envoy, Mr. Biden had to walk a fine line. He quite rightly wouldn’t take sides on who should become prime minister, the position being fought over by the present prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and the former one, Iyad Allawi. But Biden – on his fifth trip to Iraq since being elected – did make clear the urgency of making that decision.

While reaffirming the long-term US commitment to Iraq, he told the Iraqis that the United States will stick to its schedule to end the combat phase of its engagement by drawing down to 50,000 troops by the end of August.

America’s lasting commitment is a difficult message to convincingly communicate, as voters at home grow war-weary and ever more budget conscious. And yet it also meets with ambivalence in Iraq, where people worry about the US leaving too soon, while at the same time chafing under the American presence.

There is no gray area, however, about Biden’s core message: the need to soon put in place an effective new government that represents the major political players, and which puts Iraqi national interest above all other interests.

To date, that has proved difficult to do. This week, in an interview on PBS’s “NewsHour,” the Monitor’s correspondent in Baghdad, Jane Arraf, identified the challenge this way: “A lot of this [stalemate], so much of it, in fact, is related to personality.”

Prime Minister Maliki, who has been in power for four years, wants to stay in power. The former prime minister, Mr. Allawi, also wants the top job and lays claim to his bloc having narrowly won the most parliamentary seats in the March 7 election – though it doesn’t have enough seats for a majority.

Personal interests dominate, and so do sectarian ones. Only three years ago, Iraq’s major Muslim groups, Sunnis and Shiites, were set against each other in a bitter civil war, egged on by insurgents on both sides. Shiite Allawi leads a secular bloc, Iraqiya, but it’s dominated by minority Sunnis who feel disenfranchised since US-led coalition forces overthrew Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003. Maliki also says he speaks for all Iraqis, but his coalition is strongly Shiite – the oppressed majority under Hussein’s regime.

It being Independence Day in the US, Biden reminded a reception of Iraqi leaders gathered at the US embassy that America’s Founding Fathers also did not get along – which evoked laughter among the listeners.

The building of liberty and prosperity, he said, “requires great sacrifice and the willingness to subordinate your individual interest to the communal good.”

He wasn’t, he admitted, telling Iraqis anything they didn’t already know. Certainly Iraqi voters endorse this approach, having rejected identity politics in regional and national elections. What they want is effective government: electricity, health care, jobs. Last month, Iraqis erupted in violent protests over electricity cuts. They’ve had enough of government ministries run by corrupt political insiders.

Maliki and Allawi, as well as the ethnic Kurds who are part of the behind-the-scenes political horse-trading, should yield to the push of Biden, but, more important, of their own citizens.

As a side benefit, these politicians are likely to find that if they come to a power-sharing agreement that puts country ahead of self-interest, they have a greater possibility of keeping the long-term US commitment that they seek. Americans are far more likely to back a government that’s working than one that’s not.

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