US Vice President Joe Biden spent the Fourth of July with his son and other US troops in Iraq on Saturday, while the Iraqi government spokesman publicly rejected the US’ offer to help with national reconciliation, saying it’s an internal affair.
Biden took a break from politics and presided over a naturalization ceremony for 237 US troops from 59 countries in a marble rotunda at one of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s former palaces at what is now Camp Victory, the US military headquarters on the western outskirts of Baghdad.
He then had lunch with the 261st Theater Tactical Signal Brigade from Delaware, to which his son, Beau, belongs. Beau Biden stood in the back as his father greeted the troops. In telling the brigade about the naturalization ceremony, the vice president used some of his characteristic colorful language.
“We did it in Saddam’s palace, and I can think of nothing better,” he said. “That SOB is rolling over in his grave right now.”
Biden’s unusually long three-day trip to Baghdad, which began late on Thursday, was aimed at fostering political reconciliation after US combat troops withdrew from Iraqi cities as part of a security pact that calls for a full withdrawal by the end of 2011.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh’s comments were in response to an appeal Biden made a day earlier for Iraqis to do more to bring the country’s deeply divided factions together and his offer of US help. Biden also warned on Friday that US assistance may not be forthcoming if the country reverts to ethnic and sectarian violence.
“The political situation won’t accept that the United States intervenes in an internal issue, whether that issue is reconciliation, relations between various Iraqi groups or between the [self-ruled Kurdish] region and Baghdad,” al-Dabbagh said on Iraqi state TV.
“The US administration is concerned about the absence of progress on some political issues in Iraq and this is clear,” he said. “But the prime minister said that these are internal issues and it is the Iraqis who will handle the matter and the interference of non-Iraqis in these issues will create unnecessary complications and problems.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is trying to use the US withdrawal to build support before Jan. 30 general elections and his spokesman’s remarks were likely aimed at an Iraqi public impatient with the US presence. But they also signaled a growing assertiveness by Iraqis as the US dominance in the country wanes with its pullback of troops.
Al-Maliki’s office also said the Iraqi government is committed to the national reconciliation process but excluded Saddam’s ousted Baath Party, saying “it is responsible for the destruction inflicted on Iraq.”
It was Biden’s first visit to Iraq as vice president and as US President Barack Obama’s new unofficial point man on Iraq, although he has been to the country several times as a senator. Biden planned to fly to the semiautonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq later on Saturday, but the trip was canceled due to heavy sandstorms.
In closed-door meetings on Friday, the vice president pressed al-Maliki and other political leaders to do more to bring Iraq’s divided factions together, as concerns grow that a lack of political progress is fueling violence in Iraq.
While Biden stressed the US’ commitment to Iraq’s progress in his public remarks, a senior US official said the vice president warned the Iraqis that the US won’t be able to stay involved if Iraq falls back into the cycle of sectarian violence that pushed the country to the brink of civil war in 2006 and 2007.