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Rice confident Iraq will pick key ministers soon

Written by: Staff
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WASHINGTON, June 4 (Reuters) US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she was confident Iraq's government would reach a deal on filling the key posts of interior and defense ministers soon, after its parliament postponed meeting ''until further notice,'' today.

''I really do believe that they'll get it settled in the next few days. But the important thing here is that they get it right,'' Rice told Fox News Sunday, noting that in the meantime Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had taken responsibility for security matters.

No reasons were given for the postponement announced by parliament's deputy speaker, which represented a setback to the prime minister, but government sources said the powerful Shi'ite Alliance was deadlocked on a nominee for the Interior Ministry post.

Some members of the Shi'ite Alliance said a deal could still be struck later in the day.

Intense wrangling forced Maliki to leave the defence and interior posts empty when he unveiled his government of national unity on May 20.

''And when they get it right, and they will get it right, everybody will forget how long it took them. What will matter is that they have the very strongest ... defence and interior ministries,'' Rice said.

In Iraq today, gunmen dragged 24 people, mostly teenage students, from vehicles and shot them dead as violence raged across the country, police said. The victims, including youths of 15-16 years of age, were on their way to end of term exams.

Asked about a comment by Maliki that killings of civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha was not an isolated event, she said she had talked to the prime minister and that: ''He knows the importance of having coalition forces there until his own forces are capable of carrying out security missions, and indeed, overwhelmingly American forces are respected for what they are doing.'' ''When there have been any suggestions of misconduct, those suggestions are thoroughly investigated with due rights for the accused, but thoroughly investigated, and people are punished.

''So whether it is Haditha or what happened at Abu Ghraib, I can assure you that the investigation will be thorough and that people will act on what is learned,'' Rice said.

The US military is investigating allegations that following the death of a Marine by a roadside bomb, members of his battalion rampaged through houses in the Iraqi town on November. 19 and fatally shot 24 civilians.

Separately from that criminal probe, it is looking into whether Marines tried to cover up the case.

Rice later told CNN's Late Edition: ''I think it's also important for everyone to remember how much American men and women in uniform are sacrificing. I've been with families who've lost loved ones in Iraq. I've been with soldiers who have paid with limbs or with grave injuries for what they're doing in Iraq. ... American soldiers are serving with honor.'' On Thursday, US President George W. Bush pledged a thorough investigation into the Haditha deaths. He has vowed to punish those responsible if a military inquiry verifies the allegations.

REUTERS SRS PM2237

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