Senators Press Iraqi on Forming Government

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 22, 2006

BAGHDAD, March 21 -- A group of U.S. senators met with the prime minister of Iraq on Tuesday and urged him to speed the formation of a national unity government, warning that American support for helping Iraq could start to dwindle if there was too much delay.

"The American people are impatient," Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) said at a news conference after meeting with Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari.

Jafari is a central figure in a dispute among Iraqi political factions that has kept a new government from being formed. The dispute began shortly after elections in December.

"There's been too much dawdling while Baghdad is burning," Levin said. "The leadership of this country needs to make the political compromises which are essential for a government of national unity to come into being."

Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said Jafari told the group of six senators that he believed a government would be formed by the end of April. The group did not specifically suggest to Jafari that he might have to compromise and relinquish his position for a government to be formed, Warner said.

"We carefully did not involve ourselves in suggestions of what his political future might be. That's up to the people of Iraq," Warner said. "But we were very forceful and we were very pointed in our comments to him . . . about the critical nature of this point in the history of this three-year conflict, and the importance of the involvement -- which is a growing factor, in my judgment -- of the American people" in pushing for action.

Jafari, who has served as transitional prime minister for about a year, was nominated to be the permanent prime minister by the coalition of Shiite Muslim parties that holds the most seats in parliament. But his candidacy is strongly opposed by Sunni Arabs and Kurds, and his refusal to give up his post has effectively deadlocked negotiations over forming a government.

"I said to him, based on my experience and the experience of others in elections, the American people are of good heart and fair mind, but do not try in any way to deceive them or in any way let this process indicate to the world less than a sincere and prompt effort," Warner said.

Before the news conference, Jafari looked angry as he and the senators spoke to Iraqi reporters. "We are still adhering to the broad government, a national unity government to make all the Iraqi political factions unite," he said.

Warner and Levin differed over how much pressure the United States should apply on Iraq's political parties and leaders.

"Our continuing presence here is dependent upon their reaching a prompt political settlement," Levin said. "We cannot tell them who the ministers are, who should be in various ministries, but we can tell them that unless they make those compromises, that they cannot expect that we are going to have a continuing military presence here in Iraq."

But Warner said the Bush administration remained firm in not wanting to set a timetable for troop withdrawals. That also meant, he said, not giving Iraqi political leaders an ultimatum to form a government by April or face a possible U.S. pullout.

In violence Tuesday, at least 20 police officers and 10 attackers were killed when a large group of gunmen stormed a prison in Muqdadiyah, north of Baghdad, and freed more than 30 inmates, authorities said. In the capital, a U.S. soldier was killed by small-arms fire while on patrol, the military reported. A car bomb exploded on a shopping street in eastern Mosul, in northern Iraq, killing a shop owner and wounding four bystanders. And two policemen were killed and a third was wounded when their patrol was struck by a roadside bomb in Baqubah, northeast of the capital, the Reuters news agency reported.

Special correspondent Dlovan Brwari in Mosul contributed to this report.

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