- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2006

BAGHDAD — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw flew together to Iraq yesterday to deliver a stern message to the country’s political leaders that they must stop bickering and form a government.

The two diplomats, whose visit was kept secret until they landed in Baghdad, nudged the ruling Shi’ite alliance to drop its support for interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and put forward another candidate in order to break the weeks-old deadlock.

“There are two parts to this process: One is to nominate, and the other is that the person has to be able to form a government of national unity,” Miss Rice told reporters after meeting with Iraqi political leaders. “Thus far, Jaafari has not been able to do that.”

On Saturday, leaders of the largest party in the Shi’ite alliance called publicly for the first time for Mr. al-Jaafari to step down. His close association with Iranian-backed cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has made it difficult for him to win support from the Sunnis or the United States, and he also is distrusted by Kurdish leaders.

Miss Rice and Mr. Straw said the formation of a government is an Iraqi process and that they have no intention of interfering in it. But they did not hide their impatience with the lack of a political agreement 3 months after Dec. 15 elections.

“There is significant international concern about the time the formation of this government is taking,” Mr. Straw said during the flight to Baghdad from Liverpool, England, where Miss Rice was his guest for two days.

“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,” Miss Rice said. “It’s important to have fresh messages from time to time from Washington and from London about the concern that a government be formed.”

Both ministers said their countries have made enough sacrifices in the name of Iraqi freedom and democracy and deserve to see those efforts produce a political outcome. The long delay has made it harder for President Bush to explain to Americans why more than 2,300 of their fellow citizens have died in Iraq.

The United States and Britain also hope that having a democratically elected government will ease the sense of Sunni alienation that is contributing to the violent insurgency.

“I was very direct that the United States and, indeed, Great Britain and a number of others … have put a lot of treasure, and I mean human treasure, on the line to try to give Iraq an opportunity for a democratic government,” Miss Rice said after her meetings.

During their joint diplomatic effort, Miss Rice and Mr. Straw met with President Jalal Talabani, who is a Kurd, as well as Mr. al-Jaafari and other Shi’ite leaders.

Most notable among them were 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 (SCIRI).

Mr. al-Jaafari, who heads Dawa, the other major party in the Shi’ite alliance, defeated Mr. Abdul-Mahdi by just one vote to be the alliance’s nominee for prime minister. One of the SCIRI leaders would be most likely to replace Mr. al-Jaafari.

Miss Rice offered unusual praise for the “considerable maturing of the Sunni political leadership.”

“When I was here in November, it was sort of hard to imagine that they were going to be a voice for the Sunni people,” she said. “It didn’t seem that they really had the kind of connections that you see in the Shia … or the Kurdish political leadership.”

She also met with Deputy Prime Minister Rowsch Shaways and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, both of whom are Kurds.

Miss Rice spent Friday and Saturday in Mr. Straw’s home district in northwestern England, returning a visit he paid to her home state of Alabama in October. The visit was supposed to last until today, but they flew to Baghdad last night instead.

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