US embraces low-key plan as political, sectarian tensions simmer in Iraq
WASHINGTON - US Vice President Joe Biden urged leaders of Iraq's feuding political and sectarian factions Sunday to convene a "dialogue" to head off a worsening political crisis.
Biden, President Barack Obama's pointman on Iraq, has made a flurry of calls to Iraqi leaders this week, urging them to mend their fences after the Shiite president, Nuri al-Maliki, accused his Sunni vice president, Tareq al-Hashemi, of hiring bodyguards to run a death squad.
In calls to Maliki on Sunday and to Kurdish leader Massud Barzani on Saturday, Biden "exchanged views... on the current political climate in Iraq and reiterated our support for ongoing efforts to convene a dialogue among Iraqi political leaders," the White House said in a statement.
Biden also offered condolences on a spate of attacks in Baghdad on Thursday that killed over 60 people. The strikes and the growing political row have heightened sectarian tensions just a week after the last US soldier of a garrison that once numbered 170,000 left Iraq and entered Kuwait a week ago.
And for the United States, that is where the American intervention in Iraq officially stops.
Hashemi, holed up at an official guesthouse of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in the country's autonomous Kurdish region after an arrest warrant was issued against him, acknowledged earlier that his guards may have carried out attacks. But he has steadfastly denied any involvement.
Asked if he would return to Baghdad to face trial, Hashemi said: "Of course not," raising the prospect of fleeing Iraq. The 69-year-old attributed his refusal to travel to the capital to poor security and the politicization of the justice system.
Iraqiya, the bloc of Hashemi and deputy premier Saleh al-Mutlak that is part of Maliki's national unity government, has boycotted parliament and the cabinet in protest at Maliki's alleged centralization of power.
Meanwhile The New York Times, citing senior US administration officials, reported that the United States is weighing a far more subdued role in Iraq, and has no intention to send US troops back to the country.
US officials told the Times that President Barack Obama was adamant that the United States would not send troops back to Iraq, adding that even an American military presence likely would not have prevented the political crisis and coordinated attacks plaguing the country days after a US pullout.
"There is a strong sense that we need to let events in Iraq play out," a senior administration official said. "There is not a great deal of appetite for re-engagement. We are not going to reinvade Iraq."
But US military counterterrorism personnel could return to Iraq under CIA authority, if approved by the president.
"As the US military has drawn down to zero in terms of combat troops, the US intelligence community has not done the same," a senior administration official told the Times.
Another official said the administration has told Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that US economic, security and diplomatic ties with Iraq will be "colored" by how well the Shiite premier can maintain a coalition with Sunni and Kurdish leaders.
The last US soldier of a garrison that once numbered 170,000 left Iraq and entered Kuwait a week ago. Fewer than 200 US soldiers will now remain at the US embassy, along with a group of Marines for security.
The withdrawal took place after US and Iraqi leaders failed to strike a deal to keep American troops in Iraq beyond December 31.
But the outcome ultimately corresponded to Obama's campaign pledge to end US involvement in a war that left tens of thousands of Iraqis and nearly 4,500 American soldiers dead, many more wounded, and 1.75 million Iraqis displaced.