AFP: US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British counterpart Jack Straw wound up two days of intensive talks with Iraqi leaders pressing them to speed up the formation of a new government but without any indication of a breakthrough. by Peter Mackler
BAGHDAD, April 3, 2006 (AFP) – US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British counterpart Jack Straw wound up two days of intensive talks with Iraqi leaders pressing them to speed up the formation of a new government but without any indication of a breakthrough.
More than three months after legislative elections, they urged Iraqi leaders to overcome their differences and choose a strong figure to unify the country and restore stability.
“We came here to give momentum to the process that is already underway. It is not my responsibility or of Mr Straw to determine who is going to be the prime minister of Iraq,” Rice told a press conference at the end of their surprise visit.
“That will be determined by Iraqis. But we need a strong, unifying government led by someone who can bring stability and meet the challenges of Iraqi people.”
Their visit in the midst of a political vaccum in the war-torn country brought on by the lack of a new government came even as the dominant conservative Shiite coalition has asked US leaders to stop meddling in Iraqi affairs.
Rice told reporters that Iraqi leaders were under pressure from their own people to form a new government for the next four years and “that process has to take place quickly”.
“If you do not have the key positions determined, it will be difficult to form the government,” she said.
Following their meetings, the two chief diplomats have a “better understanding of pieces that are falling in places to take this process go forward”, added Rice.
“You cannot have a circumstance where there is a political vacuum in a country like this that faces so much threat of violence,” she warned.
Straw emphasized a degree of impatience in the United States and Britain which he said had sacrificed soldiers’ lives and resources in building a new Iraq since their March 2003 invasion which ousted Saddam Hussein.
“We recognize that coalition always takes time. But this is now taking more than that,” he said.
Straw was quite blunt about why the United States and Britain should have an input in the process.
“The Americans have lost over 2,000 troops here, we have lost over a 100, there are 140,000 overseas troops here helping to keep the peace,” said the foreign secretary.
“We do have a right to say, that we have got to be able to deal with Mr A, B or C, we can’t deal with Mr Nobody,” he said.
Both envoys praised Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader for much of the country’s majority Shiite community, for his aid in building a new Iraq, suggesting he could help break the political deadlock.
“Without the remarkable spiritual guidance shown by his eminence, the Grand Ayatollah Sistani, this country for all its problems it now faces would not have in its hands the potential for a better future,” said Straw.
Rice, who along with Straw held further talks with Shiite politicians earlier Monday, also took a shot at the sectarian militias operating in Iraq.
“It is not legal in a democracy to have various groups that have arms. We have sent very, very strong messages, not just in this visit, that one of the first things the multinational forces expect from the government is that there is going to be reigning in of militias,” she said.
The visit by Straw and Rice, who flew in from Britain on Sunday, also came as splits appeared in the dominant conservative Shiite alliance over its candidate to lead a new government, Ibrahim Jaafari, the incumbent premier.
The latest Shiite leader to speak out against Jaafari was Jalal al-Deen al-Saghir of the powerful Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).
“I appeal to Jaafari to renounce his candidacy as the country is in a crisis and his candidacy has not been unanimously accepted by the Shiite alliance,” he said.
Reporters traveling with Rice reported a marked coolness and awkwardness between Jaafari and Rice when they met Sunday, in contrast to the warm greeting with his chief Shiite rival, Adel Abdel Mahdi.
While Rice did not criticize Jaafari directly, she did note his inability to form a government so far.
“That person (the prime minister) has to be able to form a government of national unity, and thus far, Jaafari has not been able to do that,” she told reporters Saturday.
Kurdish, secular and Sunni politicians from the other blocs involved in government negotiations have also indicated their dissatisfaction with Jaafari, blaming him for not being able to stem the violence in the country or rein in the sectarian tendencies of many of his ministers.
The trip was Rice’s third here since she became secretary of state in January 2005 and the third for Straw this year.
For the United States, a national unity government is the key for an eventual withdrawal of coalition troops from Iraq, with high political stakes for the Bush administration.
Polls show two-thirds of Americans opposed to his handling of Iraq, where more than 2,300 US troops have died, and the war was likely to be a key issue in congressional elections in November.
The toll of the war was emphasized by US military announcements of the deaths of several American servicemen, including two helicopter pilots whose bodies were recovered Monday after being shot down two days earlier.
On Monday at least 11 Iraqis were killed in attacks across the country, including four from a Shiite family south of Baghdad that included three women. A car bomb killed a man in Sadr City.
Five plainclothes National Security force members were gunned down along with a child in broad daylight by armed men in the southern port city of Basra.