Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Biden, on Iraq Trip, Will Meet Maliki
By GINA CHON BAGHDAD -- Joe Biden, on his third trip to Iraq as U.S. vice president, said that a successful parliamentary election -- slated for January -- would go a long way toward resolving lingering political tensions here. In a meeting with reporters, Mr. Biden said he was assessing how he could help resolve political issues so that the U.S. leaves behind a stable Iraq. He also said the U.S. could play the role of an interlocutor among Iraqi officials who have disputes with each other. He identified Iraq's parliamentary vote as a key benchmark. "That's when the real bargaining will begin," Mr. Biden said of the postelection period. "That's the context in which they would need to drill down in some of the more difficult outstanding political issues." Underscoring the still-tentative nature of recent security gains, several mortars slammed into an apartment complex near the U.S. Embassy during his visit. Mr. Biden is set to meet with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and travel to Irbil, in Iraq's north, to meet with Kurdish regional President Masoud Barzani during his three-day visit. Meanwhile, the prime minister has been in the south of Iraq, embarking on a charm offensive among Shiites in the region, a crucial but fickle electorate, in his bid to hold on to power in the January vote. On the face of it, Iraq's southern provinces would seem like Maliki strongholds. His State of Law electoral list wrested power from Shiite rivals there during local elections in January. Voters rewarded Mr. Maliki for big improvements in security, especially in the oil-rich region of Basra. His popularity soared as he took charge of a military operation against militants and criminals who had effectively taken over the city, Iraq's second largest. But since then, residents have soured on Mr. Maliki's government. "We thank Maliki for saving Basra in the security operations last year, but now our most important issue is services, especially the water supply," says government employee Eptisam al-Zubaidi. Iraq is facing its worst drought in years, and Baghdad has accused neighboring countries such as Turkey of exacerbating the problem by limiting the flow of water into Iraq, through dams, for instance. Also, water flowing from the Karoon River in Iran into Iraq is being diverted, increasing the salt content of the Shattal al-Arab waterway, the main source of water in Basra. As a result, residents in Iraq's second-largest city are buying their drinking water. In a visit over the weekend, Mr. Maliki announced a $20 million water-pipeline project aimed at increasing the supply of clean water to Basra. He is visiting Dhi Qar and other provinces in southern Iraq this week. During his visit, Mr. Maliki privately rebuked provincial-council officials, a majority of whom are in his party, and Basra's governor, who is part of his electoral ballot, for not doing enough to provide the basic services, such as electricity and sewage, the public is demanding. He told them to shape up or risk losing the elections, according to one council official. "Maliki asked us to change our policies and the situation because if we continue this way, we will lose Basra," the provincial council official said. Mr. Maliki has so far declined to rejoin an umbrella Shiite coalition that elevated him to the prime ministership in the first place. Instead, he plans to form a coalition under his State of Law ballot that includes Sunnis and other groups in a broad-based allaince. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Mr. Maliki's chief Shiite rival, is a leading member of that coalition. While it lost control of provincial councils in southern Iraq to Mr. Maliki's slate, it retains a deep organizational network there. Another coalition member is a political movement associated with anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who still enjoys grass-roots support in the region. In the holy Shiite city of Najaf, however, the prime minister's standing is holding up, thanks in part to a new, hard-charging governor aligned to the prime minister. The governor, Adnan Zurfi, held the same job right after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. He was replaced after elections in 2005, but was renamed governor by Mr. Maliki's party after it edged out opponents in local elections early this year. During his last visit to Iraq in July, Mr. Biden said Americans would have little patience if political disputes turned violent. Mr. Maliki said then that he welcomed U.S. assistance, but that Iraq's internal issues needed to be solved by Iraqis.