Iraq urged to form government

Top U.S., British diplomats visit


BAGHDAD,Iraq -- In a surprise visit to the Iraqi capital yesterday, the top U.S. and British diplomats told Iraqi leaders they are growing impatient with the slow progress of political negotiations and pressed them to come to an agreement on a new government.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Minister Jack Straw's trip to Baghdad came as some members of the leading Shiite religious parties have called for Ibrahim al-Jaafari to renounce his nomination for prime minister.

For the second straight day, a Shiite legislator from al-Jaafari's coalition called on him to step aside, charging that he has become too divisive and is standing in the way of a national unity government being formed. Kurdish, Sunni and secular members of the parliament have been calling for weeks on members of the Shiite alliance to pick someone else for their nomination.

Speaking to reporters after a day of meetings with Iraqi officials, Rice said it was up to the Iraqis to pick their leaders. But she did not offer an endorsement of al-Jaafari, who won the United Iraqi Alliance caucus by one vote. Rice noted that al-Jaafari was picked as the nominee Feb. 11 but has not been able to form a government.

"Well, I don't know who the prime minister is going to be, and it's not our role to try and determine who the prime minister is going to be," Rice said, according to a State Department transcript. "They've got to get a prime minister who can actually form the government. Whoever that person is, we're going to support."

The surprise visit came on a day that violence throughout the country offered new evidence that sectarian tensions remain taut. Insurgents blew up a small Shiite mosque northeast of Baghdad yesterday, while police reported that at least 42 bodies were found in several neighborhoods of the Iraqi capital, news services reported.

In a separate development, the U.S. military reported the deaths of five U.S. service members yesterday. The U.S. military recovered the bodies of two pilots whose helicopter crashed southwest of Baghdad a day earlier. The AH-64D Apache Longbow may have crashed because of hostile fire west of Yousifiyah, the military reported.

Two American soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb while on patrol in central Baghdad late Saturday, the U.S. military said. A soldier from the 101st Airborne Division died Thursday from nonbattle injuries suffered in northern Iraq.

Rice and Straw met with President Jalal Talabani, Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi, al-Jaafari and Sunni leaders.

Al-Jaafari accused the Bush administration of meddling in Iraqi affairs after reports last week that President Bush had conveyed that he preferred that the Iraqi Alliance dump him as their nominee for prime minister.

A spokesman for the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite party, said Bush sent a message through U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to the party's leader, Abdul-Aziz Hakim, that he preferred that the Iraqi Alliance replace al-Jaafari.

In a statement, Hakim later backed away from that statement.

The relationship between U.S. officials and Shiite leaders has grown strained in recent weeks as Khalilzad has put pressure on al-Jaafari to stem the problem of Shiite militias, which have been suspected of running death squads to settle scores with Sunnis.

Yesterday, Jalal Eddin al-Sagheer, a parliament member with the Iraqi Alliance and aligned with the Supreme Council, said al-Jaafari is no longer accepted by Iraqi parties and foreign countries, and should step aside. A day earlier, Shiite parliamentarian Qassim Dawoud was the first alliance member to call for al-Jaafari to withdraw his nomination.

U.S. officials have said they believe the key to stamping out the sectarian violence afflicting Iraq is to form a government of consensus. Rice said she and Straw underscored the growing impatience of Americans and Britons over the situation.

"I was very direct that the United States and, indeed, Great Britain and a number of others ... have put a lot of treasure - and I mean human treasure - on the line to try to give Iraq an opportunity for a democratic government," Rice said.

Aamer Madhani writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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