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Rice tells Iraqis time running out to form govt

Written by: Staff
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BAGHDAD, Apr 2 (Reuters) US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Iraqi leaders today time was running out to form a new government.

''The Iraqi people are losing patience,'' Rice said after meeting Sunni, Shia and Kurdish leaders during a surprise trip to Baghdad with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

''What is more, your international allies want to see this done,'' Rice said she had told Iraqi leaders in back-to-back meetings that ended with a dinner.

Rice and Straw came on a joint visit, kept secret in advance, to try to break a deadlock over forming a unity government but the top US diplomat tried to dampen expectations of a breakthrough soon.

''We are not going to leave here with a government. That is not the purpose of this,'' Rice told a news briefing of US-based reporters travelling with her.

The top US diplomat said Iraqi leaders had defended themselves by saying their work in recent weeks had been underestimated.

The United States has more than 130,000 troops in Iraq. More than 2,000 have been killed since the US-led invasion in March 2003.

With pressure growing at home for US troops to leave and with a November congressional election approaching, the Bush administration is working harder to push the stalled political process forward in Iraq.

Rice said she made clear to the Iraqis that the United States, Britain and others involved in the war effort had a lot of ''treasure'' at stake.

''I did explain that given the sacrifice, people expect that process to continue and it can't now get stuck at the most important stage,'' she said.

One of the most tense meetings was with Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who the United States believes is part of the problem in reaching agreement on a new government.

Senior figures in Jaafari's own Shi'ite Alliance bloc broke ranks and called on him to quit a day before Rice arrived, and several US officials say privately it would be better if he left.

Rice stopped far short of saying Jaafari should quit, but she said whoever was prime minister should be able to form a new government.

''Maybe he (Jaafari) will be able to do it but the urgency is that whoever is going to be the prime minister is actually able to bring enough of the other votes on board,'' she said.

REUTERS PR RAI2218

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