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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Iraq on Saturday amid dangerous tensions following an election in March that produced no clear winner and as yet no new government.
The failure to agree on the war-damaged country's next government four months after the vote, and continuing attacks by insurgents, have raised questions about U.S. plans to end combat operations in August ahead of a withdrawal next year.
Biden, appointed by President Barack Obama to take the lead on Iraq issues for Washington, was expected to hold talks with Iraqi leaders, including Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the top vote winner in the election, ex-Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
"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," said Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh. "It wants to offer advice but its impact in solving the problem will be limited," Dabbagh told Reuters.
Biden downplayed U.S. concerns, saying lengthy coalition talks were common elsewhere, such as the Netherlands, and U.S. officials said they were not in Iraq to pressure 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 favorites, this is up to the Iraqis," a senior administration official traveling with Biden told reporters.
The last time Biden visited was before the March 7 parliamentary election, when a controversy raged over attempts by Shi'ite politicians to ban mainly Sunni candidates over alleged links to Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath party.
Iraqis had hoped the vote would lead to stability and economic recovery seven years after the invasion set off a bitter war between once dominant Sunnis and majority Shi'ites.
Overall violence has fallen sharply since the peak of the sectarian carnage in 2006-07, but attacks by a determined Sunni Islamist insurgency continue on a daily basis.
Instead of setting Iraq on a path to greater security and prosperity, the election has been followed by political uncertainty after no one won the vote outright and agreement over forming the next government proved elusive.
Sunni insurgents linked to al Qaeda have sought to exploit the political vacuum through suicide bombings and killings, raising questions about the U.S. military's plan to end combat operations in August ahead of a full withdrawal by end-2011.
A cross-sectarian bloc headed by Allawi took a two-seat lead on strong backing from Sunnis who view Allawi, a secular Shi'ite, as a strongman capable of defending their rights.
But a union between the Shi'ite blocs, including 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.
"We believe our problems should be solved by Iraqis. This includes the formation of the government," said Osama al-Nujaifi, a senior Sunni member of Iraqiya.
"Contributions from others, whether from Americans or not, should be framed as advice. Their efforts shouldn't be a magnetic pole determining the direction of talks and the creation of alliances," Nujaifi said in phone interview.
Sunnis could react angrily if Allawi fails to become prime minister, reinvigorating a wounded but still lethal insurgency.
Any increase in violence could put pressure on Obama to slow down the U.S. plan for redeploying troops and materiel to the war in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is staging a resurgence.
U.S. officials said their military plans are not tied to the formation of a government in Iraq.
"The nature of our engagement is changing. As our military presence ramps down, our diplomatic, political and economical engagements are ramping up," the official with Biden said.
Additional reporting by Muhanad Mohammed and Waleed Ibrahim; Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by Ralph Boulton