- The Washington Times - Monday, May 22, 2006

12:26 p.m.

BAGHDAD — British Prime Minister Tony Blair refused to set a date for pulling foreign troops out of Iraq today as he became the first world leader to visit Baghdad since a national unity government took office two days ago.

The visit was aimed at shoring up international support for the government as it comes to grips with the security crisis in which car bombs and drive-by shootings killed 17 persons yesterday, including seven police officers.

Mr. Blair, who held a news conference after a meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said establishing democracy had taken longer than expected following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, and he refused to set a timetable for the withdrawal of the 8,000 British troops in Iraq.

“It has been longer and harder than any of us would have wanted it to be, but this is a new beginning and we want to see what you want to see, which is Iraq and the Iraqi people to [be] able to take charge of their own destiny and write the next chapter of Iraqi history themselves,” he said.

Mr. al-Maliki has promised to use “maximum force” to end the insurgency and sectarian violence wracking the country. Although he focused on ending the bloodshed, he also has stressed the need to complete unfinished political negotiations.

He said that appointing chiefs for the defense and interior ministries should not “take more than two or three days.” He is seeking candidates who are independent and have no ties to Iraq’s myriad armed groups.

The two ministries, which oversee the army and the police, are crucial for restoring stability, and Mr. al-Maliki needs to find candidates with wide acceptance from his broad-based governing coalition of Shi’ites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

“We are aware of the security challenge and its effects. So we believe that facing this challenge cannot be achieved through the use of force only, despite the fact that we are going to use the maximum force in confronting the terrorists and the killers,” Mr. al-Maliki said.

Disarming militias, whose members are believed to have infiltrated the security services, will be a priority, he said, along with promoting national reconciliation, improving the country’s collapsing infrastructure and setting up a special protection force for Baghdad.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said the new government must “get the security ministries to transform in such a way that they will have the confidence of the Iraqi peoples.”

“The next six months will be truly critical for Iraq,” he said.

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