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U.S. and England Demand That Iraqis Promptly Form a Unified Government

By Edward Wong
and Joel Brinkley
THE NEW YORK TIMES


BAGHDAD, IRAQ

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Jack Straw, the British foreign minister, forcefully demanded on Monday that the Iraqi leadership form a unified government as quickly as possible to end a power vacuum in which sectarian bloodletting has been rampant.

Their announcement was made during the second day of a visit here to convey their acute impatience with the country’s political paralysis, and came a day after Iraq’s dominant Shiite political bloc fractured when its most powerful faction publicly demanded that the incumbent Shiite prime minister resign over his inability to form a unified government.

It was not clear whether the joint visit by Rice and Straw, the top emissaries of the two countries that led the invasion of Iraq three years ago, played a direct role in the splintering of the Shiite bloc, and whether that schism would lead to forward movement on forming a new government, which has been stalled for months.

The developments suggested that a new phase in Iraq’s convulsions might have started by opening a possibly violent battle for the country’s top job between rival Shiite factions, which both have militias backing them. The incumbent prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, has said he will fight to keep his job, and his principal supporter is Moktada al-Sadr, a rebellious cleric whose Mahdi Army militia has resorted to violence many times to enforce his wishes.

Rice and Straw, who came here unannounced early Sunday from a meeting in England punctuated by antiwar protests, told reporters they did not want to intervene in the dispute over the prime minister. But at the same time they pointed out that Jaafari had been unable to win enough political support to form a government since his nomination on Feb. 12.

“They’ve got to get a prime minister who can actually form the government,” Rice said after a meetings on Sunday with Iraqi leaders — which included a visibly uncomfortable photo session with Jaafari — inside the Green Zone, the fortified part of Baghdad that houses the Iraqi government and American Embassy. She added, “I told them that a lot of treasure, a lot of human treasure, has been put on the line to give Iraq the chance to have a democratic future.”

“We are entitled to say that whilst it is up to you, the Iraqis, to say who will fill these positions, someone must fill these positions and fill them quickly,” Straw told reporters at a news conference Monday.

“There is no doubt the political vacuum that is here at the moment is not assisting the security situation,” he added.

At lunchtime, officials with Jaafari’s party met with Kurdish leaders to try to rally political support for the embattled prime minister. The Kurds, and particularly President Jalal Talabani, have been at the forefront of calls to oust Jaafari. Talabani was incensed after Jaafari paid a state visit to Turkey in late February; Turkish leaders have repeatedly threatened to invade Iraqi Kurdistan if the Kurds try to secede.