BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney visited Iraq on Sunday for the first time since the 2003 invasion, as hardline leaders from both sides of the country”s sectarian divide renewed calls for American troops to go home.
Cheney, a chief architect of the war to oust Saddam Hussein, met Iraq”s prime minister and president during his 8-hour visit, and hailed last Thursday”s election as "tremendous".
But Saleh al-Mutlak, a Sunni Arab nationalist who stood in the parliamentary election and has spoken up for insurgent views, said Americans were not welcome in Iraq and should leave.
His comments echoed those of outspoken Shi”ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who accused the Americans on Saturday of peddling their own agenda and disregarding Iraqis.
A lull in violence around the largely peaceful vote was shattered by a bomb in a busy Baghdad market on Sunday which killed five people and injured at least seven. It exploded close to a Shi”ite mosque, although it was unclear if that was the target.
A suicide bomber killed one police officer in an attack in Baghdad and another blew himself up near the capital when his explosive belt detonated prematurely.
Police in the northern city of Kirkuk said two relatives of a local Kurdish political leader were shot dead on Saturday. In Baghdad, police said a member of the Badr Brigades, a militia loyal to Iraq”s biggest Shi”ite party, was killed, also on Saturday.
While neither Sadr nor Mutlak will head the next government, both are influential within their respective communities, and their dissent highlights the size of the task facing the next administration, charged with keeping Iraq”s rival sects and ethnic groups in check while building a stable democracy.
Mutlak, a wealthy businessman and head of a secular Sunni coalition, said U.S. President George W. Bush was deluding himself if he believed the election was truly democratic.
He also said some of his candidates had been killed in the largely Shi”ite south of Iraq on election day. It was the first report of candidates being killed and could not be confirmed.
"Mr President, do not believe that a real democratic process took place in Iraq," he told a news conference, addressing Bush, who was due to make a speech on Iraq from the Oval Office later.
"If anyone tells you that, they are wrong."
QUITTING IS NOT AN OPTION
The United States hopes the election, widely hailed as a success, will allow it to start pulling troops out of Iraq in significant numbers next year.
Faced with weak approval ratings, over 2,100 U.S. war dead and widespread anxiety about his Iraq policy, Bush was expected to stress the success of the poll in his speech.
Cheney, in Iraq for the first time in 14 years, visited the Taji military base just north of Baghdad and also addressed a rally of U.S. troops, telling them "the only way to lose this fight is to quit, and that is not an option".
The U.S. military says it is making headway against the largely Sunni Arab insurgency which has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis in the past three years and made life dangerous and miserable for millions more.
On Sunday, U.S. forces said they discovered a cache of bomb-making equipment near Saddam”s home town of Tikrit, 175 km (110 miles) north of Baghdad.
The cache, found on election day, consisted of 414 two-way radios, 48 circuit boards and more than 100 timing devices which could have been used to make roadside bombs — the deadliest threat to patrolling U.S. soldiers.
As roads and borders re-opened after a security lock-down for the poll, Iraqis returned to work. But they will have a long wait before seeing the shape of their new government.
Results are not expected for around two weeks and will almost certainly be followed by horse-trading as the players in Iraq”s fragmented political landscape jockey for power.
Iraq-based Western diplomats who followed the election say they expect the Shi”ite coalition which forms the backbone of the present government to again be the biggest bloc in the new assembly, although with a reduced number of seats.
They predict it will win around 110 seats, down from more than 140 now, with the Kurdish bloc taking around 55 and 40 going to the broad coalition led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, the same as at the last election on Jan. 30.
The biggest difference between the new and old assemblies will be the presence of Sunni Arab representatives, who boycotted the January poll but took part this time.
Diplomats have forecast Sunnis winning 50-55 seats.