, CAMP VICTORY, Jul 4 – US Vice President Joe Biden was on Sunday marking Independence Day with American troops in Iraq ahead of talks later in the day with the two men vying to lead the conflict-wracked nation\’s next government.
Speaking to soldiers at Al-Fao, a former hunting lodge of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein which is now part of US military base Camp Victory just north of Baghdad, Biden was in upbeat mood.
"Here we are in the hunting lodge of a dictator who subjugated a people, who in fact stood for everything that we don\’t stand for. And we are in the middle of the marble palace, making a lie of everything that he stood for," Biden said.
"I find it delicious that that\’s happening," he said to loud applause from the crowd of around 600 military personnel.
US commander in Iraq General Ray Odierno paid tribute to the US troops, describing them as "the best, the brightest and the bravest."
Biden, on day two of his second trip to Iraq this year, thanked Odierno for his "extraordinary service" and then officiated at a naturalisation ceremony for 153 US military personnel who on Sunday became American citizens.
He thanked the new citizens, from 56 countries ranging from "Brazil to South Korea and many in between… for choosing us, for choosing America."
Biden also said Washington was keeping its promise to bring the troops home.
"On August 31 we will go from 140,000 from the day I was sworn in as vice president to 50,000.
"Your safety and security has been and always will be the number one priority for me and the president. Quite simply we owe you."
Biden had on Saturday said he was "extremely optimistic" Iraq\’s politicians could resolve their differences despite a four-month impasse since a deadlocked general election.
Accompanied on his visit by wife Jill, the vice president was greeting troops at a US military base near Baghdad ahead of meetings with national leaders, including Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Also on the agenda are talks with Iyad Allawi, a former prime minister who narrowly beat incumbent premier Maliki into second place in the March 7 parliamentary ballot that has yet to usher in a new government.
Allawi, a Shiite, insists as the election\’s victor that he has the right to become prime minister, especially as his Iraqiya coalition had strong backing in Sunni-dominated provinces.
Maliki, however, who is fighting to hold on to his job, has so far managed to stymie Allawi\’s chances by forming a Shiite super-party that with 159 seats is only four seats short of a majority in the new 325-seat Baghdad parliament.
The failure of either man to bow out to the other has alarmed Washington which is steadily reducing its military presence in the country seven years after the US-led invasion that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein from power.
Biden in remarks to reporters on Saturday expressed confidence that impasse can be resolved.
"I think the country is in the position where in one sense it looks the most difficult putting the government together, but in another sense this is local politics," he said.
"This is not a lot different than any other government," he said, adding that "the parties are all talking. I remain extremely optimistic about a government being formed here that will be representative."
Biden last visited Iraq in January when he came to try to defuse a political crisis after hundreds of candidates were barred from the poll in March over alleged links to now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein.
A senior aide to Biden insisted that the troop withdrawal would go ahead as planned and would not be affected by the political hiatus in Baghdad.