VP Biden Visits Iraq

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BAGHDAD (AP) Vice President Joe Biden landed Saturday on what appeared to be a dual mission in Baghdad: to visit U.S. troops during the July Fourth weekend and coax Iraqi leaders into ending their government impasse.

Top Obama administration officials have been reluctant to visit Iraq since its deadlocked March election failed to produce a clear winner.

Biden’s trip may signal the U.S. is stepping up its efforts to hammer out an agreement among Iraqi political rivals and get a new government in place as soon as possible.

Biden is the White House’s point man on Iraq issues, and was last in Iraq in January.  He visited three times last year.

The vice president landed at an air force base in Baghdad and was immediately scheduled to head into meetings with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill, the top American military commander in Iraq, U.S. Army Gen. Ray Odierno, and the top UN envoy to Iraq, Ad Melkert.

Biden will “affirm the United States’ long term commitment to Iraq and discuss recent developments” with Iraqi officials, the White House said in a statement Saturday.  He is expected to meet with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the premier’s main political rival, Ayad Allawi.

High ranking U.S. senators _ Republicans John McCain from Arizona and Lindsey Graham from South Carolina as well as Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut _ also met Biden at the Baghdad airport on Saturday.  They are in Iraq on an unrelated trip and did not travel here with the vice president.

Earlier on Saturday, McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the Iraqi capital.

Biden’s trip comes at a sensitive time for Iraq.  The newly elected parliament is scheduled to meet later this month for the second time since the March 7 vote, but vying political factions remain deadlocked over which bloc has enough support to pick its new leaders, including prime minister.

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