Rice, Rumsfeld praise Iraq leaders, urge unity
BAGHDAD, Apr 27: US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said today she and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld found the leaders building Iraq's new government ''inspiring'' and urged them to create a team for all Iraqis.
''All these Iraqi leaders recognise the challenges before them, recognise that the Iraqi people expect their government to be able meet those challenges,'' Rice told reporters at the US embassy in the heavily guarded Green Zone.
She said government representatives they met, including Prime Minister-designate Nuri al-Maliki, outgoing prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and former prime minister Iyad Allawi, were ''focused'' and ''serious''.
''Obviously, the key now is to get the government up and running, to get ministers who are capable and who also will reflect the value of a national unity government, and then to get about the work of dealing with the security situation, dealing with the economic situation,'' Rice said.
Last weekend, President Jalal Talabani asked Maliki to form a government drawing together majority Shi'ite Muslims, Sunni Arabs and Kurds in a bid to end a bloody insurgency and mounting sectarian violence that threaten to drag Iraq into civil war.
US President George W Bush, who has urged a unity government, sent Rice and Rumsfeld to the Iraqi capital yesterday to talk with Maliki.
Their visit underlined the importance Washington places on Maliki's success in forming a government that Rice said must have a ''non-sectarian mindset''.
Maliki, a tough-talking Shi'ite, says he wants to announce his government within two weeks. But he has a month from last weekend to present his team for parliament's approval.
Asked what the new government needed to do establish its credibility and to quell violence, Rumsfeld said: ''The first step, obviously, for the government, is to fashion a cabinet and the heads of the various ministries soon with people that demonstrate to the Iraqi people who went out and voted for them that they have stepped forward and assumed responsibility for their sovereign nation, and then to continue to work to development of the Iraqi security forces.'' US officials say a new Iraqi government will eventually boost the country's ability to protect its own peace and security, allowing Washington to bring some of its troops home.
During an event with Rumsfeld, Iraq's national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, said there were plans for Iraqi forces to take over more work and for U.S. force levels to fall, depending on security conditions.
''Certainly at the end of the year, there should be a sizable gross reduction in the troops,'' he said, adding he hoped most US and other foreign forces would be gone within two years.
Rubaie did not mention specific figures.
Rumsfeld also met military leaders working on trying to develop better ways to counter the threat caused by roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices. These IEDs are the largest cause of US casualties in the war.
The No. 2 US general in Iraq, Army Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli, told reporters US troops are encountering more powerful and larger IEDs, particularly as they venture into rural areas where insurgents find it easier to hide explosives.
April is the deadliest month of 2006 for US forces, and the military has pointed to particularly powerful IEDs as one of the causes.
The visit of Rumsfeld and Rice comes amid slumping US public support for the 3-year-old war, which has killed almost 2,400 US troops.