- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2006

BAGHDAD — A top priority of the new Iraqi government should be to set up strong ministries of defense and interior that can “rein in” and ultimately disband partisan militias, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday as she concluded a two-day visit to Baghdad.

She said she and her British counterpart, Jack Straw, who accompanied her on the trip, had discussed the issue with leaders from all major political parties and told them it was time they agreed on a Cabinet 3 months after parliamentary elections.

“You have to have a government of national unity, so that a minister of defense, minister of the interior, can be appointed for whom the responsibility is to provide security in conjunction with the multinational forces here, and then to produce conditions under which people are secure and these militias, of course, can be disbanded,” Miss Rice said.

“It is not legal going forward to have these [militias], and you can’t have in a democracy various groups that have arms,” she said at a press conference with Mr. Straw. “You have to have the state with a monopoly on power.”

Sectarian violence has increased sharply in Iraq since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shi’ite shrine in Samarra. Miss Rice said the lack of a new government was creating a “political vacuum” that is being exploited by the insurgents.

The two diplomats undertook their mission hoping to break the deadlock on forming a government without seeming to interfere in Iraq’s internal affairs.

“We do have, I think, a right to say that we’ve got to be able to deal with Mr. A or Mr. B or Mr. C. We can’t deal with Mr. Nobody. And that’s a problem,” Mr. Straw said.

He and Miss Rice made clear in private, as well as in public, that Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari should step aside to clear the way for another Shi’ite candidate who would be more acceptable to the Sunnis and Kurds.

Over the weekend, some of the leaders of the largest party in the Shi’ite alliance turned publicly against Mr. al-Jaafari for the first time.

Miss Rice said she “had a very strong sense that the message was indeed getting through.” But all leaders she and Mr. Straw met with remained silent throughout the visit.

Although Mr. al-Jaafari insists he will fight to keep his job, the visitors and some of their hosts spent time considering other candidates for prime minister and other key positions.

Miss Rice and Mr. Straw spent more time with Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and Adil Abdul-Mahdi, the chairman and vice president, respectively, of the largest Shi’ite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, than with any other leaders.

Mr. al-Jaafari, who heads Dawa, the other major party in the Shi’ite alliance, defeated Mr. Abdul-Mahdi by one vote to be the alliance’s nominee for prime minister.

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