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U.S. official: ‘No secret plan’ for forming Iraqi government

Vice President Joe Biden, who has been the lead administration official on Iraq for some time, went to Baghdad this past weekend to reassure the Iraqis that the U.S. was still very concerned with their political maturation, even though U.S. combat troops will soon be leaving and U.S. policy is to express no preference for ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Vice President Joe Biden, who has been the lead administration official on Iraq for some time, went to Baghdad this past weekend to reassure the Iraqis that the U.S. was still very concerned with their political maturation, even though U.S. combat troops will soon be leaving and U.S. policy is to express no preference for how the current post-election stalemate should turn out.

"Let me just be very clear, there's no American plan, there's no secret plan," a senior administration official told reporters from Baghdad. "We don't have a slate of candidates, we don't have favorites. This is up to the Iraqis."

Vice President Joe Biden, who has been the lead administration official on Iraq for some time, went to Baghdad this past weekend to reassure the Iraqis that the U.S. was still very concerned with their political maturation, even though U.S. combat troops will soon be leaving and U.S. policy is to express no preference for how the current post-election stalemate should turn out.

"Let me just be very clear, there’s no American plan, there’s no secret plan," a senior administration official told reporters from Baghdad. "We don’t have a slate of candidates, we don’t have favorites. This is up to the Iraqis."

Even though Biden met with "virtually the entire senior Iraqi leadership," including those who are in the current government and those who are involved in forming the new government, he never once indicated what kind of outcome the Obama administration would like to see, besides an "inclusive" government where all major political interests could be represented, according to the official.

"In terms of government formation, which is on everyone’s minds, he’s really here to listen," the official explained, also taking time to argue that America’s disengagement from Iraq is not to blame for the ongoing deadlock in forming a new government in Baghdad. The last time Iraqis voted, the U.S. was intimately involved in the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing that characterizes Mesopotamian politics.

"The relationship between that [drawdown] and the existence or lack of a permanent government really isn’t there," the official said, adding that the schedule to end all U.S. combat operations in Iraq and drawdown to 50,000 troops by August 31 will go on as planned, regardless of whether a new government is formed by then.

Of course, there are outcomes in Baghdad that line up better or worse for U.S. interests. Biden met with Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, whose State of Law slate did not win a plurality of votes but who did form an alliance with the Iraqi National Alliance, whose members include anti-American cleric Moqtada al Sadr.

Sadr and his people are fighting the reappointment of Maliki as prime minister and if they are successful in getting their preferred candidate Ibrahim al-Jaafari as prime minister, that could signal a political turn against the Americans, experts said. ISCI, the other powerful player within the INA, is promoting Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi.

Meanwhile, Iraqiyya, which actually won more votes than any other slate, is fighting for its place in the new government and is still hopeful its leader Ayad Allawi will be made prime minister. His secular leanings would ostensibly be what Washington would prefer, although the administration won’t say that out loud — and he didn’t have such a successful tenure the first time around, when he presided over some of the most violent years of the war.

"Certainly there are outcomes that are in line more with U.S. interests than others," said Marisa Cochrane Sullivan, research director at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank run by Iraq expert Kimberly Kagan.

Sullivan said that Biden’s trip shows even more caution than his last visit, when he was there to argue against the actions of Maliki and others to disqualify scores of Iraqiyya candidates who were accused of having Baathist ties.

On that trip, some Iraqi feathers were ruffled when Biden seemed to side with Allawi and the disqualified candidates over Maliki. That’s why he and other U.S. officials are so insistent not to seem to be expressing any preference now.

"He’s catering to the Iraqi domestic political sensitivities here and walking a very fine line," Sullivan said.

It was Biden’s fourth trip to Iraq since becoming vice president and being charged by President Obama with overseeing U.S. policy there, based on his experience and interest in the war while he was head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

It was also Biden’s second consecutive visit to Baghdad for the July 4 holiday, and he took the opportunity to preside over a swearing-in ceremony for freshly minted American citizens who earned their new national identity by fighting with U.S. forces.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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