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thedrifter
04-23-06, 08:42 AM
Posted on Sun, Apr. 23, 2006
New leaders face tough road

By ROBERT H. REID
The Associated Press

BAGHDAD -- The Shiite hard-liner tapped as Iraq's new prime minister promised Saturday to swiftly finish building a unity government after parliament elected top national leaders, ending months of political deadlock as the nation spiraled into chaos.

Jawad al-Maliki has 30 days to assemble a Cabinet from divided Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties.

The most contentious problem will be filling key ministries that control security forces amid demands to purge them of militias blamed for sectarian bloodshed.

Five American soldiers died Saturday in roadside bombings south of Baghdad, and Marines killed four insurgents in a gunbattle in Ramadi -- clear signs of the ongoing security crisis.

After repeated delays, parliament convened Saturday in the heavily guarded Green Zone and elected a president, two vice presidents, a parliament speaker and two deputies.

President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who won a second term, named al-Maliki prime minister-designate, a formality after the dominant Shiite bloc replaced outgoing Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. Sunnis and Kurds refused to accept al-Jaafari.

That laid the foundation for post-Saddam Hussein Iraq's first fully constitutional government, which Washington hopes can quell the Sunni-led insurgency and Shiite-Sunni violence.

That would enable the United States to begin withdrawing its 133,000 troops.

Few say the task will be easy.

It remains uncertain whether Iraqi leaders representing religiously and ethnically based parties can set aside their interests and rise to the challenge of managing a nation on the brink of disaster.

President Bush suggested that the formation of the new Iraqi government could be the beginning of an eventual drawdown of American forces.

"The new Iraqi government will assume greater responsibility for their nation's security," he told reporters during a trip to California.

"It will have the popular mandate to address Iraq's toughest long-term challenges.

"This historic achievement by determined Iraqis will make America more secure," Bush said.

However, the new Sunni vice president, Tariq al Hashimi, said any withdrawal of U.S. forces would lead Iraq into civil war.

"The last American soldier will not leave the country unless we have a fully prepared army," he said.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, a key player in tortuous political negotiations since Dec. 15 elections, told reporters that improvement will not be instantaneous.

"I think that with the formation of a national unity government with a good program and with competent ministers, Iraq will be on the right trajectory," he said.

The tough-talking al-Maliki, who once managed Shiite guerrillas in Saddam's Iraq while exiled in Syria, promised an inclusive government with "all components of Iraqi society."

Al-Maliki, 55, also signaled that he was prepared to crack down on Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias responsible for the rise in sectarian violence.

"Weapons should be only in the hands of the government," al-Maliki told reporters.

He pointed to laws requiring militias to be integrated into the nation's security forces.

Al-Maliki's toughest task will be assigning control of the defense and interior ministries, responsible for the army and the police.

Sunnis have accused the Shiite-run Interior Ministry of tolerating death squads that target Sunni civilians.

Army and police ranks are believed to be infiltrated by militias.

Staff writer Leila Fadel contributed to this report, which includes material from Knight Ridder Newspapers.

U.S. military deaths

As of Saturday, at least 2,388 members of the U.S. military had died since the Iraq war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. The figure includes seven Defense Department civilians.

SOURCE: The Associated Press

Ellie