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Rice, Straw make surprise visit to Iraq

The leaders carried a sharp message of international impatience with delays in the formation of a new government.

india Updated: Apr 02, 2006 14:50 IST

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her British counterpart Jack Straw made a surprise visit on Sunday to Iraq carrying a sharp message of international impatience with delays in the formation of a new government.

The ministers flew in secretly under tight security in a pouring rain from Britain in an unprecedented joint effort to move forward Iraqi political talks that have dragged on for months while sectarian violence escalated.

"We're going to urge that the negotiations be wrapped up," Rice said en route to Iraq. "It should be very clear to everyone that the time has come for these negotiations to produce a government of national unity."

"I would assume that the fact that we are going out to have these discussions with the leadership is a sign of the urgency that we attach to the need for a government of national unity," she told reporters.

Straw pointedly recalled the heavy investment the United States and Britain had made in Iraq in lives and resources since the March 2003 invasion to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Asked whether the involvement could be sustained without greater effort from the Iraqis on the political front, he said, "We're committed to Iraq, very committed. But we need to see progress."

Rice and Straw were to confer with President Jalal Talabani, Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari and other leaders whose attempts to form a permanent government were stalled three and a half months after landmark legislative elections.

US officials have repeatedly called establishment of a government bringing in majority Shiite Muslims, Kurds and minority Sunnis, the key to their exit strategy for the eventual withdrawal of some 1,30,000 US troops in Iraq.

But the Iraqis have been squabbling over Jaafari's bid to stay on as prime minister as the candidate of the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, which controls nearly half the seats in the 275-member parliament.

Kurdish and Sunnis leaders are opposed to Jaafari, arguing he has been unable to contain Iraq's raging insurgency and is too sectarian for a country seeking to avoid collapsing into a civil war.

Media reports have suggested that US President George W Bush was seeking an alternative to Jaafari. But Rice and Straw insisted they had no intention of taking sides in the jockeying for power in Baghdad.

"We'll recognise and respect whoever emerges as a leader through this system," Straw said. "Our concern, however, is that they (the Iraqis) have to make swift progress to secure a leader."

The two chief diplomats also urged quick resolution of a dispute between Shiite and Sunni leaders over who would land the all-important job of supervising security forces in the troubled Gulf state.

The Iraqis appeared to have taken a large step towards settlement of the issue by announcing on Saturday an agreement to put security in the hands of a committee that would be headed by the prime minister and his deputy.

The trip was Rice's third here since she became secretary of state in January 2005 and the third for Straw this year. Officials said the ministers had been speaking about a joint trip for two weeks and finalised plans only last on Tuesday.

Rice refused to set a deadline for the Iraqis to finish their work but said the time was right for a mission from abroad to support efforts by US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad to bridge stubborn communal differences.

"It's important to have fresh messages from time to time from Washington and from London about the concern that a government be formed," she said.

The political stakes are also high for the Bush administration. Polls show two-thirds of Americans opposed to his handling of Iraq, where more than 2,300 US troops have died, and the war was likely to be a key issue in congressional elections in November.

Bush has been lobbying for domestic support for his policies but Rice gave critics new ammunition on Friday when she said Washington had made "thousands" of tactical errors in Iraq. She said onSaturday she was only speaking "figuratively."

First Published: Apr 02, 2006 14:50 IST