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BIDENPUSHES TO BREAK IMPASSE IN IRAQ

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Associated Press

BAGHDAD - Vice President Joe Biden returned Saturday to Iraq to coax its government into picking a new prime minister, months after elections left the nascent democracy in a state of gridlock as the United States prepares to pull out its troops.

Biden's trip - his fifth since he was elected vice president, and his second this year - signals Washington's growing impatience with Iraq's stalled political process since the March 7 vote. The Iraqi election failed to produce a clear winner, and competing political alliances have been angling to secure an edge in Parliament - mostly through back room deals that leave voters out of the process.

The vice president was upbeat upon arrival, down-playing concerns that the impasse would lead to a crisis. "This is local politics," Biden told reporters in brief remarks at the sprawling U.S. military base west of Baghdad known as Camp Victory. "This is not a lot different than any other government."

He added: "I remain, as I have from the beginning, extremely optimistic about the government being formed here."

Iraqi officials appeared cool to the prospect of Biden muscling in on their political scene.

"The aim of Biden's visit is not to impose a point of view nor an attempt to interfere in Iraq's political process," said Yassin Majid, an adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He said Biden and the prime minister would meet today to discuss plans for U.S. 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 note that he only will offer help if it was requested, and not advocate for any specific coalition or agenda.

He also is set to meet Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi during the long July Fourth weekend he is in Iraq. Biden also plans to meet with troops and will attend a naturalization ceremony this morning.

Maliki, a Shiite, is battling to keep his job after Iraqiya, a Sunni-backed coalition, narrowly won the most seats in the March vote. Iraqiya is headed by Allawi, his chief rival.

Iraq's newly elected parliament is scheduled to meet this month for the second time since the vote.

Lawmakers have only about a month to end the political deadlock before the start of Ramadan in August, when little official business gets done.

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.

Deaths

As of Saturday, 4,409 U.S. troops have died in the Iraq war. Identifications as reported by the U.S. military and not previously published:

-Army Spc. Jacob P. Dohrenwend, 20, Milford, Ohio; noncombat-related incident June 21; Balad.

-Army Pfc. Bryant J. Haynes, 21, Epps, La.; vehicle rollover June 26; Al Diwaniyah.

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