VP Biden arrives in Iraq amid political impasse

BAGHDAD, Iraq 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.

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 is expected to meet with Iraqi leaders Sunday.

In an unrelated trip, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, met Saturday with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the Iraqi capital. McCain was in Baghdad on a congressional delegation traveling separately from the vice president.

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.

Parliament has only about a month to end the impasse before the start of Ramadan in August, when little official business gets done in the Arab world. Adding to the urgency, all but 50,000 U.S. troops are set to leave Iraq by the end of August in a test of whether the fledgling democracy's security forces are ready to protect its people from insurgents and other terror threats.

Persistent violence has raised fears that al-Qaida in Iraq and other militants are trying to exploit the political deadlock to foment unrest and derail security gains as the American military prepares to withdraw all of its troops by the end of next year.

Analysts and some Iraqi lawmakers have warned that the end to the political gridlock still could be months away.

Al-Maliki, who leads a Shiite political coalition, is battling to keep his job after his rival Sunni-backed Iraqiya list narrowly won the most seats in the March 7 balloting. But al-Maliki has tried to outmaneuver his challengers by creating a so-called super-Shiite alliance that would give him more seats in parliament than the Sunni-backed Iraqiya list led by his chief rival, former prime minister Ayad Allawi.

Iraqiya leaders have claimed they should have the first crack at forming the government because they won the most seats on election day. But a March court opinion opened the door to the possibility that the largest bloc could be one created after the election through negotiations -- meaning that if the super-Shiite coalition holds together, it could have the right to form the government.

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