The US vice-president has arrived in Iraq in a bid to help clear a political impasse four months after elections failed to produce a clear winner or an agreement on a coalition government.
Joe Biden's trip, his fifth since he was elected vice-president and his second this year, signals Washington's concern over the stalled political process and the effect it may have on plans to end combat operations in August and withdraw fully by the end of next year.
But Biden was upbeat on arrival, downplaying concerns that the impasse would lead to a crisis.
"This is local politics," Biden told reporters in brief remarks at the sprawling US military base west of Baghdad known as Camp Victory. "This is not a lot different than any other government.
"I remain, as I have from the beginning, extremely optimistic about the government being formed here."'Creation of alliances'
Biden, appointed by Barack Obama, the US president, to take the lead on Iraq issues for Washington, was expected to hold talks with Iraqi leaders, including Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, and Iyad Allawi, a former prime minister and the leader of the cross-sectarian Iraqiya bloc that won the election by two votes.
But Iraqi officials appeared cool to the prospect of Biden offering anything more than advice.
"We believe our problems should be solved by Iraqis. This includes the formation of the government"
"We believe our problems should be solved by Iraqis. This includes the formation of the government," Osama al-Nujaifi, a senior Sunni member of Iraqiya, said.
"Contributions from others, whether from Americans or not, should be framed as advice," he said.
"Their efforts shouldn't be a magnetic pole determining the direction of talks and the creation of alliances."
Ali al-Dabbagh, a spokesman for the Iraqi government, said "the United States is the country that is the most worried about the situation but the one that interferes the least in internal Iraqi affairs".
"It wants to offer advice but its impact in solving the problem will be limited," he said.
And Yassin Majid, an adviser to al-Maliki, said "the aim of Biden's visit is not to impose a point of view nor an attempt to interfere in Iraq's political process".
Majid said Biden and the prime minister would meet on Sunday to discuss plans for US troops to leave Iraq and ways to deepen ties between the two countries - as well as ways to build the new government.
Biden's aides were quick to say that he would only offer help if it were requested, and not advocate for any specific coalition or agenda, other than an end to the delay in the forming of a new government.
'No US plan'
Even then, the aides said, they were not in Iraq to put pressure on its leaders.
"Let me be very clear, there is no American plan, there is no secret plan, we don't have a sway over candidates, we don't have favourites, this is up to the Iraqis," a senior administration official travelling with Biden told reporters.
|Biden struck an upbeat tone on arrival, playing down concerns of a looming crisis [Reuters]
Overall violence in Iraq has fallen sharply since a peak in 2006-07, but deadly attacks continue on a daily basis, and fighters have sought to exploit the political vacuum through suicide bombings and killings.
Allawi's bloc took a two-seat lead on strong backing from the once dominant Sunnis who view the former premier, a secular Shia, as capable of defending their rights.
But a union between the majority Shia blocs, including al-Maliki's State of Law, is expected to beat Allawi's Iraqiya in the tussle to gain the majority needed to form a coalition government.
Iraq's newly elected parliament is scheduled to meet later this month for only the second time since the vote. Legislators have only about a month to end the political deadlock before the start of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan in August, when little official business is expected to get done.
Adding to the urgency, all but 50,000 US troops are set to leave Iraq by the end of August in a test of whether the country's fledgling security forces are ready to protect its people.
There are currently about 77,500 US troops on the ground in Iraq.
Biden also planned to meet US troops during the US Independence Day weekend.