Rice expects Iraq to stabilize quickly

By Anne Gearan The Associated Press

BAGHDAD – The United States and Britain expect Iraq to quickly restrain militias and unify around a stable government, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her British counterpart said yesterday in a visit meant to resonate both in Iraq and at home.

Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw met with nearly all of Iraq’s squabbling factions over two days of unusually hard-edged diplomacy. Rice stayed overnight to make the point that security is improving despite relentless violence that has eroded public support in the United States for a war now in its fourth year.

“First and foremost, the purpose of this trip is to encourage and to urge the Iraqis to do what the Iraqis must do because the Iraqi people deserve it,” Rice said. “But yes, the American people, the British people … need to know that everything is being done to keep progress moving.”

Two-thirds of Americans say they do not approve of President Bush’s handling of the war, and a large percentage say it has not been worth the sacrifice. More than 2,000 Americans have died in Iraq since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, and the war has cost billions more than anticipated.

A car bomb exploded near a Shiite mosque in northeastern Baghdad yesterday, killing at least 10 people. Four American troops were killed by hostile fire in the volatile Anbar province, and at least five U.S. Marines died when a military truck rolled over in a flash flood in the same province. Three others were missing.

Sectarian violence has escalated since a Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra.

Rice said she and Straw repeated a strong message that the next government has to curb the power of sectarian militias, which are blamed for much of the current wave of reprisal killings among Shiites and Sunnis.

The unified government, she said, can “produce conditions under which people are secure and these militia groups can be disbanded.”

Her remark acknowledged that the militias exist in part because they provide protection that many Iraqis do not yet trust their police or Army to supply.

“You can’t have, in a democracy, various groups that have arms,” Rice said. “You have to have the state with a monopoly on power.”

A day earlier, Rice had spoken of a “sense of drift” nearly four months after Iraqis held parliamentary elections. Political horse trading to pick a prime minister and permanent government have bogged down, with an impasse over whether the interim prime minister will keep his job.

Neither Rice nor Straw pointed to any specific accomplishment from the trip, but said their message got through. The double billing of leaders from the two nations that have spent the most in lives and money on Iraq was a signal that international patience has run out.

“We are entitled to say that whilst it is up to you, the Iraqis, to say who will fill these positions, someone must fill these positions and fill them quickly,” Straw said.

They were careful not to pronounce on the fate of interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, but they voiced no enthusiasm for the Shiite nominee for a second term.

“Our purpose is not to say who needs to do what,” Rice said in response to a question about whether al-Jaafari should step aside. “We say to every leader, ‘Look within yourself and do whatever you have to do to make this process move forward.'”

Straw and Rice slipped into Iraq on Sunday morning, after spending two days touring Straw’s parliamentary district in England’s industrial north. Rice spent her entire visit inside the fortified American Embassy complex in the Green Zone.

From Baghdad, the two flew to London, where Rice was to see Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Rice had met anti-war protests nearly everywhere she went as Straw’s guest in Liverpool and Straw’s home district of Blackburn. About 20 percent of the town is Muslim, and opposition to the war is widespread.