Biden's Iraq Visit Conveniently Timed For Crisis

Vice President Joe Biden visited Baghdad over the weekend. The White House said the trip had been planned for weeks, but Biden arrived right in the middle of a political crisis. An Iraqi parliamentary committee has disqualified 511 candidates from running in the upcoming general election on the grounds that they're connected to Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party. American officials fear that the move will alienate Sunni Arabs in Iraq, discredit the election, or even reignite sectarian violence. NPR's Liane Hansen speaks with NPR's Quil Lawrence from Baghdad.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Liane Hansen.

Vice President Joe Biden visited Baghdad over the weekend. The White House said the trip had been planned for weeks, but Biden arrived right in the middle of a political crisis. An Iraqi parliamentary committee has disqualified 511 candidates from running in the upcoming general election on the grounds that they're connected to Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party. American officials fear that the move will alienate Sunni Arabs in Iraq, discredit the election, or even reignite sectarian violence.

NPR's Quil Lawrence joins us from Baghdad. And, Quil, I guess the first question is who's behind the move to ban these 511 candidates?

QUIL LAWRENCE: Well, since 2003 there's been a De-Baathification Committee, which was set up to decide who was a willing collaborator with Saddam Hussein and should be banned permanently from politics. So there's plenty of support from hundreds of thousands of people across Iraq who lost loved ones to torture or killed under Saddam.

At the same time, this list includes some Sunni politicians whove been working in parliament now for four years. And it would clearly be a blow to reconciliation efforts if they cut out some of these most prominent Sunni candidates from the race. That said, there's also some controversy because the De-Baathification Committee is run by Ahmed Chalabi.

HANSEN: Ahmed Chalabi sounds - it's a familiar name. Isnt he the man who was blamed with passing bad information to the Bush administration in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq?

LAWRENCE: Exactly. Chalabi has been on the Iraqi political scene for years. He's never been elected to a post in Iraq, but he is such a shrewd political survivor that he's managed to pull off this move and again become one of the most powerful people for this moment in Iraqi politics.

It doesnt look like he's done anything strictly illegal. Chalabi himself right now is conveniently out of the country. But his spokesman, Entifadh Qanbar, said that he thinks this is an Iraqi illegal process and it doesnt need Vice President Biden or anyone else to intervene.

Mr. ENTIFADH QANBAR (Spokesman, Ahmed Chalabi Spokesman): We dont need help from anybody. It's the law. We're just applying the law. This is not the job of the United States of America. I think the vast majority of the people are for disqualifying those people. And the vast majority of the list, they're not going to even challenge it in the court. They know they're guilty and they know if they raise up the issue, it will blow in their face.

HANSEN: Well, did Vice President Biden actually weigh in on the controversy?

LAWRENCE: Well, he was walking kind of a fine line. He didnt want to come to Iraq appearing that he was here to save the day; especially because of how it might look if he didnt save the day. But Iraqi politicians had been saying for days before he arrived that he had been offering suggestions. Publically, Biden's team only said that they were really concerned that this process wasnt transparent enough and that is very clear on the streets of Iraq.

No one really understands how this all this happened. It leaked out at first. It wasnt made public very forthrightly and no one's seen the evidence. At least one prominent name was allowed to withdraw, allowed to get his name off the list in agreement in return for taking his name out of the hat for the election. So people are very confused about this and it is giving that sort of perception of a taint to the process.

HANSEN: That's NPR's Quil Lawrence in Baghdad. Thank you.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Liane.

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