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US, UK pile pressure on fractious Iraq leaders

Written by: Staff
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BAGHDAD, Apr 3: The United States and Britain piled pressure on Iraq's leaders today to break their deadlock over a new government and prime minister as quickly as possible and to disband sectarian militias to avoid civil war.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, on the second day of a previously unannounced visit, told Iraqi leaders the lack of a government nearly four months after elections was undermining security.

''The Iraqi people are rightly demanding that they have a government after they braved the threats of terrorists to go to the polls and vote,'' Rice told a joint news conference in the fortified Green Zone, the diplomatic and government centre.

''Indeed, the international partners, particularly the United States and Great Britain and others who have forces on the ground and have sacrificed here, have a deep desire and, I think, a right to expect that this process will keep moving forward.

''It is, after all, the political process that will disable those who wish to engage in violence against the Iraqi people.'' Washington fears the political vacuum will fuel instability that is keeping US troops in the country.

Three Marines and a sailor were killed in action in Iraq's western Anbar province yesterday, the military said today.

The attack came after a US helicopter was shot down on Saturday south of Baghdad. The two pilots were killed.

Rice demanded the disbanding of sectarian militias, which are tied to political parties. Some Shi'ite militias have been accused by Arab Sunnis of running death squads.

''You can't have in a democracy various groups with arms -- you have to have the state with a monopoly on power,'' she said.

''We have sent very, very strong messages repeatedly, and not just on this visit, that one of the first things ... is that there is going to be a reining in of the militias.'' Sectarian bloodshed has spiralled since a key Shi'ite shrine was bombed on February 22. Many Iraqis and foreign governments believe the only way to put a lid on the killings and avert civil war is a government grouping Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds.

Hundreds have died since the shrine bombing -- two to three dozen mutilated corpses often turn up on the streets of the capital -- and more than 30,000 have been forced from their homes.

PROGRESS NEEDED

Rice and Straw said foreign governments could not tell Iraqis who their next prime minister should be, but that Iraq's international supporters must see progress.

The fact of their visit and the tone of their comments made clear interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari did not meet their conditions.

''You cannot have a circumstance in which there is a political vacuum in a country like this that faces so much threat of violence,'' Rice said.

''It needs to be a strong leader who's a unifying force and someone who can bring stability and meet the challenges of the Iraqi people.'' Although Jaafari has been nominated as the next Prime Minister, his appointment has yet to be confirmed. Straw said political talks would make no progress until the issue of who would be prime minister was settled.

''We do have, I think, a right to say that we've got to be able to deal with Mr A, or Mr B, or Mr C. We can't deal with Mr Nobody. And that's the problem, OK?'' he said.

Jaafari's critics and now some of his own allies have increasingly called for him to step aside, saying the Shi'ite leader cannot bring the needed unity and security.

But no clear alternative leader has emerged and none of the potential candidates has presented a decisive strategy for dealing with the problems confronting post-war Iraq.

Talks over forming a new government after parliamentary elections in December have stalled on the fate of Jaafari and details such as a Sunni demand for a security veto in any new administration.

In the latest violence, gunmen in two cars shot dead five people on the streets of the southern city of Basra today. A child was killed in the crossfire, police said.

REUTERS

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