Biden Makes Unannounced Visit To Baghdad

Vice President Joe Biden is in Baghdad this weekend. Host Scott Simon gets the details from NPR Baghdad bureau chief Lourdes Garcia-Navarro.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Vice President Joe Biden has landed in Baghdad today for a Fourth of July visit with U.S. forces and meetings with Iraqi leaders. The trip had been kept secret until shortly before the vice president and his wife, Jill Biden, arrived. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro joins us from Baghdad.

Thanks very much for being with us.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

SIMON: And what's on the itinerary for the Bidens? Do we know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes. The vice president arrived with his wife and was greeted by U.S. ambassador here Chris Hill, the head of U.S. forces, General Ray Odierno, and Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. He's meeting with U.S. military leaders today, and tomorrow he'll be attending a naturalization ceremony in the morning, followed by a Fourth of July celebration with the troops. But the meat of this visit will happen tomorrow afternoon when he meets with Iraqi leaders. First is an hour-long meeting with Ayad Allawi, the secular Shiite former prime minister who won the most votes in the parliamentary elections that were held four months ago here. He's locked in acrimonious negotiations with sitting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose (unintelligible) came in a close second. They're both vying over who will get to form a government.

There's a political impasse here, Simon(ph), and there's been a lot of criticism that the U.S. seems utterly disengaged. Right now the U.S. is drawing down its fighting force. By the end of this summer there will be around 50,000 troops that's down from a height of more than 165,000 during the so-called surge.

So I think the U.S. is keen to show that the troops may be leaving, but the U.S. is still interested and they have a role to play here.

SIMON: You mentioned a naturalization ceremony, and is that for U.S. soldiers, or what's going on there?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes, U.S. soldiers. It's a very common thing U.S. soldiers who serve in the U.S. military often get their naturalization or citizenship expedited because they have served in a hostile place like Iraq. So that's one of the things that he's doing here.

SIMON: Lourdes, at this point do we have any idea what's keeping the new Iraqi government from forming?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The climate here is very difficult politically. There's been no government essentially here since those elections four months ago. So that's left a pretty serious political vacuum. And while negotiations are proceeding, pessimists say no government is expected until September, which is, you know, a long hot summer away. And if you speak with Iraqis, there's, you know, a lack of electricity services in general, and many people really feel that the political class just don't get it.

Violence is down here. There's no doubt about that. But some Iraqis feel the U.S. invaded this country and that they've lost interest completely.

SIMON: And still, all these years on, electricity is or the lack of electricity is an urgent matter, isn't matter.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's an urgent matter. We're seeing protests all through the South for the past few weeks. And you know, it's very interesting. The U.S. issued a press release, the vice president's office, and it said the vice president had come to reaffirm the U.S.'s long-term commitment to Iraq. The U.S. has an agreement with Iraqis which stipulates that all U.S. troops have to be out of here by December 2011, and they still have the largest embassy in the world here. But I don't think this visit was merely one to shake hands with the troops. There's been a lot of talk and a lot of criticism of Vice President Biden himself that Iraq is not the administration's top priority.

Now, what can the vice president achieve while he's here? Well, that remains to been. Iraqis say they want an honest broker, but the U.S. has made clear it wants this to be an Iraqi process and the days when the U.S. called the shots here politically are indeed over. So how much clout does Biden have? Does the U.S. have what it takes to move this process forward? We'll see over the next few days.

SIMON: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Baghdad, thanks so much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

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