Rice Lauds Prime Minister-Designate as 'Iraqi Patriot'

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 22, 2006; 4:45 PM

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice today hailed the end of the political stalemate that had stalled the selection of Iraq's prime minister, calling it an "important milestone" that would lead to the formation of a national unity government that U.S. officials hope will end sectarian clashes.

Three weeks ago, Rice inserted herself directly into the dispute by making a surprise visit to Baghdad with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and urging Iraqi leaders to resolve the dispute. During her two-day visit, she made little secret of her belief that the previous nominee, interim prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, was not capable of providing the leadership needed to unify the country.

Jaafari had narrowly won the nomination from the Shiite Muslim bloc that holds the most seats in Parliament but he was strongly opposed by Kurdish and Sunni leaders. Rice and Straw held an awkward meeting with Jaafari, in which he insisted he was the nominee and entitled to his seat. Jaafari withdrew his bid on Thursday, paving the way to end the four-month impass.

Rice's dramatic intervention was criticized by some Shiite politicians and also U.S. analysts as heavy-handed, but this morning in a conference call with reporters she savored the outcome of her gamble. She lauded the new nominee, Shiite politician Jawad al-Maliki, as an "Iraqi patriot" and "very courageous and brave" and praised Jaafari for making a "patriotic decision" to withdraw.

Maliki is "thought to be a strong figure, someone who's capable of getting things done," Rice said. "He's a hard-working person who wants to see Iraq stable and democratic and he clearly worked hard to convince people in the broad coalition that he is going to take seriously the concept of a government of national unity and not a government that would be sectarian."

Rice had met with a range of Iraqi leaders during her trip to Baghdad, but said she has never met Maliki, who opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq and is a senior member of the Shiite-dominated Dawa party.

"This is someone with whom we can work and we are looking forward to working with him," Rice, while noting that "we probably won't always agree."

While Rice was an architect of the increasingly unpopular Iraq war when she served as national security adviser during President Bush's first term, she currently has the highest approval ratings of Bush's cabinet -- about 60 percent -- and much of the public does not appear to blame her for the troubles in Iraq. Even her recent comment that the administration probably made "thousands" of "tactical errors" in Iraq appeared to bommerang on Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld when he publicly disagreed with her. A number of senior retired generals then emerged to call for Rumsfeld's resignation.

But the historical assessment of Rice's tenure as secretary of state will likely depend heavily on whether the administration succeeds in leaving Iraq with a viable political future. According to Rice, Bush directed her to go to Baghdad with Straw to try to break the impasse.

Administration officials hope the formation of a permament government will finally usher in a period of stability for Iraq that would allow for a reduction of U.S. troops. Rice said it was a "high priority" for the Iraqis to create an infrastructure for running the fragmented country, which in three years since the U.S. invasion has been run by a succession of temporary, often ineffectual institutions. Rice said she would be talking to Iraqi leaders about how to create strong federal ministries and local governments that are capable of delivering services to Iraqi citizens.

Rice said that "an extremely high priority" was making sure the Interior Ministry -- said to be infiltrated by Shiite militas -- create a nonsectarian police force that does not spread fear among some segments of the population.

"We are especially concerned that the ministries of interior and defense, which really have to carry now the responsibility on the security side, be filled with people who are nonsectarian and people who are very capable," she said. She declined to comment on Maliki's proposal to merge militia groups with Iraqi armed forces.

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