Iraqi prime minister meets top officials

Al-Maliki moving to show leadership


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A day after winning approval of most of his Cabinet, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki conducted a rapid series of meetings with top government and security officials - part of an orchestrated effort to signal urgency and leadership following a five-month power vacuum.

After a meeting with his ministers, al-Maliki vowed yesterday to use "maximum force against the terrorists and criminals" and repeated his intention to dismantle Iraq's armed militias.

The capital's continued violence underscored the difficulty of the task:

In a crowded downtown Baghdad restaurant, a man detonated explosives strapped to his waist, killing at least 13 people and wounding 18 others.

In east Baghdad, curious shoppers gathered around Iraqi policemen attempting to defuse a bomb planted at the entrance of the New Baghdad Market. The bomb exploded, killing three people and wounding 20.

In the northwest part of the city, a car bomb parked along a road killed three Iraqis and wounded 15.

Officials at a Baghdad hospital reported receiving seven shooting fatalities and 13 people wounded by gunfire.

On Saturday, al-Maliki won parliamentary approval of a 36-member Cabinet. He still needs to name leaders for the two most powerful ministries, defense and interior, as well as the National Security ministry, but promised to do so this week.

Al-Maliki said the appointment of chiefs for the defense and interior ministries should not "take more than two or three days." He is seeking candidates who are independent and have no ties to Iraq's myriad armed groups. The two ministries, which oversee the army and the police, are crucial for restoring stability, and al-Maliki needs to find candidates with wide acceptance from his broad-based governing coalition of Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

In a news conference, al-Maliki acknowledged that establishing some sense of security was the most immediate problem his government faced.

"We are aware of the security challenge and its effects. So we believe that combating this challenge cannot be by the use of force only. Although we will use maximum force against the terrorists and criminals, in addition to military power, we also need national reconciliation in order for trust to prevail among all Iraqis."

Explaining the series of meetings with ministers, top generals, police leaders and Americans, including Army Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. military official in Iraq, Salah Abdul Razzaq, a spokesman for al-Maliki, said the new prime minister "wants to leave the impression that he is very concerned about security and that he wants to start right away to make plans for a new security program."

Bush administration officials seized on al-Maliki's new government as a sign of progress in Iraq.

President Bush told reporters at the White House that he had called al-Maliki and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani yesterday to congratulate them and promise continuing U.S. support for Iraq's fledgling government.

Formation of the government marks "a new chapter in our relationship with Iraq," Bush said, adding that he had "assured them that the United States will continue to assist the Iraqis in the formation of a free country."

The new government also received praise from neighboring Jordan and Kuwait and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

In the capital, at least some Iraqis appeared to take heart in al-Maliki's flurry of activity, contrasting him with former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

Solomon Moore writes for the Los Angeles Times.

The Associated Press contributed to this article

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