U.S. starts to push Iraqi government


WASHINGTON – The United States is pushing Iraqi leaders to step up the pace in forming a unity government, hoping insurgents do not take advantage of the political uncertainty, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday.

Echoing military commanders, Rice also said that if Iraqis assume greater control of their country’s security, then the United States could significantly draw down troops this year.

The senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee criticized Rice’s “excuses” for the lack of progress and urged President Bush to make clear to Iraqis that U.S. troops will stay only if Iraqis achieve a political compromise.

“They’re doing it … more slowly than we would hope,” Rice said. “And we’ve pressed that they need to expedite because of the potential for a political vacuum.”

Negotiations to form a government in Baghdad are now in the third month. Iraqi leaders have predicted a government will be offered to parliament for approval within two months.

“I think they’re doing a remarkable job,” Rice told “Late Edition” on CNN. “The only reason that people are pressing them to get it done more quickly is that there is a violent insurgency that might try to take advantage of the period of time in which there isn’t a government.”

Rice said Iraqi leaders are dealing with “some of the most sensitive and existential issues for the new Iraq,” including rules for the government and appointments for specific posts.

“This is the first time that Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds have really had a chance to sit down and talk to each other about these very difficult issues,” she said.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who met with Iraqi leaders last week in his role as top Democratic on the Armed Services Committee, said Bush should make it clear to the Iraqis that troops are going to continue to be there only if they work out a political compromise. That is a message, Iraqi leaders have not yet received, he said.

“Instead, they get the kind of excuses that we just heard as to how complicated it is, how difficult it is, that constitutions and cabinet selections take time,” said Levin, who appeared on “Fox News Sunday” after Rice.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said U.S. troops are “a crutch” for Iraq and that their presence continues to fuel the insurgency.

“The best way to remove that crutch is to see a substantial withdrawal of American troops. That’s what I’m for,” Kennedy said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”