BAGHDAD, April 12 -- Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in a sharp intervention in Iraqi government-building, urged the country's new Shiite and Kurdish leaders Tuesday against carrying out a broad purge of the security forces.
Rumsfeld's warning, delivered during a surprise visit to meet with President Jalal Talabani, Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari and others, broke from a hands-off political approach observed by President Bush and his aides since the run-up to the Jan. 30 national elections.
The recently appointed Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, left, and the U.S. defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld, react to a reporter's question at a news conference in Baghdad during the secretary's surprise visit to the capital.
(Gerald Herbert -- AP)
"We have an opportunity to continue to make progress politically, economically. . . . Anything that would delay that or disrupt that as a result of turbulence, or lack of confidence or corruption in government, would be unfortunate," Rumsfeld told reporters here.
Rumsfeld's mission and message revealed the depth of U.S. concern that Iraq's newly empowered Shiite Muslim majority may go too far in expelling former enemies from the military and police, potentially decimating the armed forces rebuilt by the United States and inflaming the insurgency, American officials said.
During the secretary's visit, two car bombings killed at least 10 people in Iraq's north, and deadly firefights continued near an embattled Marine border post near Syria, underscoring the vulnerability of gains in security since the confidence-building January elections.
Officials would not release any more information on an American kidnapped Monday, saying only that he had been taken from his work site just north of Baghdad.
No demands or assertions of responsibility have emerged in the kidnapping.
The purge of Saddam Hussein-era Baath Party officers and officials from Iraq's military and civil service is becoming one of the most crucial issues here as Iraq's first democratically elected government in a half-century takes shape.
Shiite and Kurdish politicians, who won the most seats in the new National Assembly, are adamant that any Hussein-era holdovers guilty of wrongdoing, including the persecution of Shiites and Kurds, must go. But suspicion and resentment of all Baathists run high, threatening to make any purge near-absolute and bloody.
A U.S. official in Baghdad expressed concern this week that a purge could rid the armed forces, which are being assembled, trained and armed by the United States at a cost of billions of dollars, of their most seasoned combatants against the insurgency.
Such a purge could reignite a homegrown insurgency being led largely by Sunni Muslims who were formerly members of Hussein's military, reversing what Shiite and Kurd politicians say is a drive to draw Sunnis into the political process.
"It's important that the new government be attentive to the competence of the people in the ministries, and that they avoid unnecessary turbulence," Rumsfeld told reporters on his plane before arriving in Iraq, the Reuters news agency reported.
In 2003, U.S. occupation authorities ordered a far-reaching political purge of Iraqi ministries and abolished the Iraqi security forces, but administration officials later came to regard those measures as too draconian, while critics said they had helped fuel the insurgency.
Ali Debbagh, a lawmaker in the predominantly Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, said Iraqi officials assured Rumsfeld that "definitely it's not the policy of the government to fire well-trained people, even though they belong to the Baath Party. We just want to recall the people who did crimes in the past."
But Debbagh added that "there are people in security who belong to Saddam's party and they are not coping with the new system in Iraq." Also, he said, such people have "a link to the so-called resistance."
The debate is affecting the immediate work of forming the government, which must be completed in three weeks. Kurds are leading a drive to bring a 40-seat secular bloc led by former interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, into the governing Shiite-Kurd coalition, hoping for help in offsetting the Shiites' strongly religious influence.
Shiite lawmakers complain bitterly that Allawi brought too many former Baathists back into the ranks when he was interim prime minister. Barham Salih, former interim deputy prime minister, said Allawi had agreed in principle to place his bloc in the governing coalition, and that negotiations were continuing.
Debbagh said Allawi's bloc would be given one of the deputy prime minister posts, with the two other deputy posts going to a Kurd and Ahmed Chalabi, a former Pentagon favorite who is widely distrusted by U.S. officials and many Iraqis.
Staff writer Caryle Murphy contributed to this report.