BAGHDAD, Iraq, AP -The top U.S and British diplomats made a surprise trip to Iraq on Sunday to prod the country’s struggling leaders to end nearly four months of wrangling and form a new government.
“We’re going to urge that the negotiations be wrapped up,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said as she and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw flew overnight to the Iraqi capital for meetings with the current interim government and ethnic and religious power brokers.
Straw said the choice of leaders is up to Iraqis alone, but neither he nor Rice disguised the blunt nature of their mission.
“There is significant international concern about the time the formation of this government is taking, and therefore we believe and we will be urging the Iraqi leaders we see to press ahead more quickly,” Straw said.
The British diplomat was making his third trip to Iraq this year. Rice was last in Iraq in November.
“We’ve wanted to be out there at times that we thought we could help move the process forward,” Rice said. “And of course it’s important to have fresh messages from time to time from Washington and from London about the concern that a government be formed.”
Britain is Washington’s closest ally in the 3-year-old war and stations the second largest number of troops in the country after the United States.
Rice and Straw were meeting with President Jalal Talabani. Meetings were also planned with the vice president, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and other leaders.
The visit comes amid growing pressure on al-Jaafari to step aside as the Shiite nominee for a second term to break the stalemate in talks on forming a new government.
Talks among Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders have stalled, in part because of opposition to al-Jaafari’s nomination by the Shiite bloc. On Saturday, Shiite politician Qassim Dawoud joined Sunnis and Kurds in calling for a new Shiite nominee, the first time a Shiite figure has issued such a public call.
Rice and Straw, who had been in northern England, arrived during a driving rain and thunderstorm at a time when U.S. officials here have been expressing increasing impatience with the slow pace of government talks following the Dec. 15 elections.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has urged the Iraqis to speed up the process to prevent the country from sliding into civil war.
U.S. officials believe the formation of a government of national unity would be a major step toward calming the insurgency and restoring order three years after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein. That would enable the U.S. and its coalition partners to begin withdrawing troops.
But talks among Iraqi political leaders have bogged down, prompting Sunni Arab and Kurdish politicians to call for al-Jaafari’s replacement. The Shiites get first crack at the prime minister’s job because they are the largest bloc in parliament.