BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise visit to Iraq on Sunday and bluntly warned its bickering political leaders they must form a national government or risk losing the backing of the international community.
Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who accompanied her, were trying to break a 3 1/2-month political deadlock that has worsened the country’s slide into sectarian violence.
After spending the day huddled with Iraqi politicians, Rice said she told them the deadlock must end and that the country’s tenuous democracy might not survive another crisis like the bombing of a Shiite Muslim shrine in Samarra in February, which touched off a round of ethnic and religious killings.
“The Iraqi people are losing patience,” Rice said she told Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders. “Your international allies want to see this get done because you can’t continue to leave a political vacuum.”
Rice also indirectly referred to declining support at home for President Bush’s handling of the Iraq war.
“I did say (that) democracies have to support the policies of a democratically elected government. … The American people want to see Iraq succeed, but they want to see Iraq progress,” she told reporters.
Rice’s decision to intervene, breaking off from a European trip and inviting Straw to join her, underscores the high stakes for the White House.
The secretary of state arrived in Baghdad at a critical moment of vigorous jockeying over the candidacy of acting Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who was nominated in February by the leading Shiite political slate. Shiites took the plurality in the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections.
The United States is trying to ease al-Jaafari out of the way gently because he has not been able to get consensus for his candidacy.
The secretary of state scheduled only 45 minutes with al-Jaafari, less time than she spent with other Shiite leaders.
Rice said later that although the United States is not choosing winners, any candidate must be able to both get the nomination and form a national government. “Thus far, Jaafari has been unable to do that,” she said.
Al-Jaafari won his slate’s nomination by one vote, and supporters of firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr tipped the votes in his favor.
Al-Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army, controls security in parts of Baghdad and Basra. Some accuse the Mahdi Army of killing Sunnis. Nevertheless, al-Jaafari has said they should be incorporated into the country’s police and army forces.
Representatives from the seven parties that make up the top Shiite slate, the United Iraqi Alliance, have begun meeting and asking each other whether they should stick with al-Jaafari. They said they would have a decision within the next two days.
“We’ve reached a point where must determine whether other slates want to form a government with Jaafari or not,” said Humam Hamoodi, a member of the Alliance and a Shiite party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. “We have to find out whether there are real objections or there are conditions we can consider.”
The visit by Rice and Straw risks heightening allegations that the United States and its main partner in Iraq are trying to manipulate the country’s politics.
But the secretary of state apparently decided that those risks were outweighed by the political paralysis.