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Biden Arrives In Iraq To Discuss Baath Dispute

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- U.S. Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Iraq today to try and mediate in a squabble over a decision to bar candidates from March elections due to suspected links to Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath Party.

Biden, making his third visit since U.S. troops pulled out of Iraqi urban centers last June, was expected to discuss with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki the move to exclude more than 500 politicians from the vote, which has threatened to reopen sectarian wounds.

The decision by a panel charged with preventing high-ranking Baathists from returning to public life included popular Sunni politician Saleh al-Mutlaq, triggered protests from minority Sunnis who complained that majority Shi'ites were trying to marginalize them.

The panel's ruling was upheld by Iraq's independent electoral commission but still faces a court challenge.

The controversy has stirred concerns about Iraq's fragile security with the key parliamentary election less than seven weeks away.

Violence has tumbled since the peak in 2006/07 of the sectarian conflict that killed tens of thousands following the U.S. invasion in 2003, but bombings and assassinations are still a daily occurrence.

'Constitutional Solution'

President Jalal Talabani said there would be a meeting in the coming days between the presidency, leaders of parliament, heads of the judiciary and Maliki to "find a legal and constitutional solution" to the row over the banned candidates.

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said it was incumbent on the banned politicians to disavow the Baath party, which ruled Iraq with an iron fist for more than two decades under Hussein.

Biden, asked by President Barack Obama to take the White House lead on Iraq policy, visited last September to keep up pressure on Iraqi leaders to cement the country's tenuous democracy and prevent a slide back into broader conflict.

During that visit, rockets fell on Baghdad's fortified Green Zone government district after he met with U.S. Ambassador Chris Hill and U.S. military commander General Ray Odierno. Two people were killed when one of the rockets hit an apartment block, and another struck near the U.S. Embassy compound.

In early July, Biden met with Maliki and officials across the ethnic and sectarian divide a few days after U.S. troops pulled out of towns and cities under a bilateral security pact that paves the way for a full U.S. withdrawal by 2012.

On that visit, supporters of fiery Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr paraded through a Baghdad slum chanting anti-American slogans.

The United States still has considerable influence in Iraq but the security pact signed in 2008 gave Iraq back its sovereignty even while tens of thousands of U.S. troops remain on its soil.