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Rice: End Iraqi political stalemate

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Condoleezza Rice
Jack Straw
Great Britain
Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday called for an end to the "political vacuum" in Iraq and for the Iraqis to form a new government.

Speaking at a news conference with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Rice said the next Iraqi prime minister must be a "strong leader" capable of unifying the people of this fractured country.

The chief U.S. and British diplomats are on the second day of a surprise visit to Baghdad aimed at trying to end the political stalemate that has prevented the formation of a new government.

Rice and Straw -- who flew into the Iraqi capital Sunday from northwest England -- met with Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish politicians, who have been stalled in their efforts to form a government following the December 15 parliamentary elections.

"This is a really important time for the Iraqi leadership, for the Iraqi people, for Iraq itself," Rice told CNN after Sunday's meeting. "It's an opportunity to have a national unity government that can really take on and solve tremendous challenges." (Watch CNN's Nic Robertson explain the visit's significance -- 1:59)

"We thought it was important to come and deliver a message that the time has come to end these negotiations and deliver a government," she said.

Rice said a permanent government would have "a bigger impact" on Iraq than many predict as it tackles problems like militias and insurgent violence.

"It's true the country has been accustomed to dealing with problems through violence, through coercion and through oppression," she said. "Now they have to do it through politics."

But once the government is in place and functioning, she said, "people will start to reassert a sense of their Iraqiness, which is one of the strengths of this country.

"They can solve these problems, but they need to start with the formation of a unity government, and soon."

On the plane to Baghdad, Straw said that when he visited Iraq five weeks ago, he was assured that a new government would be put together quickly.

"Sadly ... this coalition formation has taken much longer," he said, and cited "significant international concerns" about the delay.

Dispute over prime minister

A spokesman for President Jalal Talabani said the president had an "excellent" meeting with Rice and Straw. Rice thanked the president for his leadership, and stressed that whoever leads the new government must be a unifying force, the spokesman said.

Others who met with Rice and Straw were interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite; Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, a Shiite; Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the top Shiite parties; and top Sunni leaders from the Tawafuq coalition. Talabani is a Kurd.

Rice, who appeared tense following her meeting with al-Jaafari -- in contrast to her appearance after meeting with other leaders -- said that she was "very direct" that the U.S. and Britain have invested a lot to help Iraq build a democratic country.

The Shiite-led United Iraqi Alliance, which won the most seats in the elections for the 275-member Council of Representatives, nominated al-Jaafari for the four-year post. But a large bloc of Kurds, Sunni Arabs and secular politicians have been forcefully opposed to Jaafari.

Any choice for prime minister must win approval from the parliament.

Rice said President Bush asked her to go to Baghdad, but added that the United States had no intention of interfering with the Iraqis' selection process. Whoever is chosen to be prime minister, she said, must be able to form a unity government.

"And thusfar, Jaafari has not been able to do that," she said. "Now, maybe he will be able to do it, but the urgency is that whoever is going to be the prime minister candidate is actually able to bring enough of the other votes on board to have a government of national unity."

Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq's Kurdish foreign minister, told CNN on Sunday that he believed the only way to end the stalemate over al-Jaafari would be to put the matter before parliament.

"There is a deadlock on this, and the only way to break that stalemate, in my view, is to go to the parliament ... and then to resolve this issue, whether it would be him or somebody else, or to nominate some other people from the United Iraqi Alliance," he said.

Opposition to al-Jaafari has been growing, and the Shiite coalition is being pressured to reconsider its decision. Political leaders are trying to agree on an acceptable candidate before a legislative vote is taken.

Rice praised Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential Shiite cleric in Iraq, calling him "a voice of reason at difficult times for the Iraqi people, someone who has urged unity in the country."

A report released in February praised al-Sistani as a moderating influence on extreme elements in the country. (Full story)

Asked whether the United States and Britain are losing patience with the Iraqis, Straw cited the huge financial investment and loss of lives by both countries in trying trying to mold a democratic Iraq.

"We're committed to Iraq," Straw said. "Very committed. But we need to see progress."

While Rice declined to set a deadline for Iraqis to form a government, she said, "the fact that we're going out to have these discussions with the leadership is a sign of the urgency which we attach to a need for a government."

Iraq's political parties, meanwhile, reached agreement Sunday on the bylaws for the new government's Cabinet, according to a statement from Talabani's office. Representatives from the parties met Sunday at Talabani's home to discuss the issue.

Rice and Straw landed at the Baghdad airport Sunday morning during a heavy rainstorm. The secretary of state had spent the past two days touring Liverpool and Blackburn, which Straw represents in Parliament. (Full story)

CNN's Elise Labott, Cal Perry and Nic Robertson contributed to this report.

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