- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 27, 2006

BAGHDAD — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld flew to Iraq yesterday to meet with the prime minister-designate and emphasize the importance of a “nonsectarian” government.

The unprecedented joint visit by the top two Cabinet officials demonstrated Washington’s full backing of Nouri al-Maliki, who has been selected to head a new government.

“I came away most encouraged,” Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters after he and Miss Rice met with Mr. al-Maliki, who announced yesterday he would use his given name, “Nouri,” rather than Jawad, a name he adopted for security reasons while being sought by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

“I found him to be very focused and very clear that he understood his role and the role of the new government to really demonstrate that it is a government of national unity,” Miss Rice added.

Gen. George Casey, the commander of the U.S.-led coalition forces, said that the agreement on Iraq’s top government leaders last week would help create conditions to reduce American troop levels.

Miss Rice said that ministerial appointments should begin with the ministries of interior and defense, so they can take control of security and public order and disband sectarian militias. The ministers, she said, must be nonpartisan and unifying figures.

“I think they understand that the importance of appointing ministers and subordinates who have a reputation for technical competence and a mind-set that is nonsectarian,” Miss Rice said of Mr. al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani and other leaders she and Mr. Rumsfeld met yesterday.

In addition to security and providing “essential services,” such as electricity and water, Mr. al-Maliki told his guests that his top priorities include building trust among different ethnic groups, Miss Rice said.

She dismissed the statement by terrorist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, made on a tape posted on the Internet on Tuesday, that Mr. al-Maliki was a U.S. puppet.

“We know that he has not always agreed with us, or we with him, but he’s somebody who’s always had the interests of the Iraqis at heart,” Miss Rice said.

Iraqis voted for parliament on Jan. 30, but the formation of the country’s first democratically elected government was delayed for months because Sunnis and Kurds would not support interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s bid to retain his post.

Miss Rice added the Baghdad stop to a trip she’s making to the Balkans, while Mr. Rumsfeld flew in from Washington.

Gen. Casey, who has said in the past that he would recommend “fairly substantial” reduction of the 132,000 U.S. forces this year if the insurgency did not worsen and if Iraq made political progress, noted yesterday, “I’m still on my general timeline.”

Mr. Rumsfeld said that no one in yesterday’s meetings “suggested that there should be lower [troop] levels than currently existed.”

In fighting yesterday, U.S. troops backed by a helicopter and jets struck a suspected safe house of foreign insurgents, killing 12 militants and a woman in a raid near the site where an American helicopter crashed, the U.S. military said, according to the Associated Press.

In Baghdad, a bomb ripped through a minibus carrying passengers to their Shi’ite neighborhood, killing four persons, who were among at least 12 Iraqis killed in violence. Police also found 11 bodies dumped in Baghdad and elsewhere, the apparent victims of sectarian killings, the AP reported from Baghdad.

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