By JENNIFER LOVEN
The Associated Press
Sunday, April 23, 2006; 9:43 PM
TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. -- President Bush on Sunday called Iraq's top leaders to congratulate them on breaking a political impasse and urge the quick formation of a coalition government.
Bush said he told President Jalal Talabani, Prime Minister-designate Jawad al-Maliki and parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani that they have a duty to improve the lives of Iraqis, defeat the insurgency and unite the country.
"They have awesome responsibilities to their people," Bush told a few hundred Marines and their families after joining them for lunch in the mess hall at the Marine Corps Air Ground Center.
The Iraqi leaders "expressed their deep appreciation for the United States of America and our soldiers," Bush said, describing the three calls he made over about a half hour early Sunday.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters that Bush encouraged the Iraqi leaders, especially al-Maliki, to act quickly and pick a Cabinet.
The spokesman said Bush praised al-Maliki, a Shiite who was a consensus nominee for prime minister, for signaling he was prepared to crack down on Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias responsible for the increasing sectarian violence that has threatened to push Iraq into civil war.
Bush also told al-Maliki he was encouraged by the Iraqi's pledge to select capable representatives for his Cabinet.
The president stood in the cafeteria line with Marines and loaded up a plate with salad, green beans, mashed potatoes, meat and a roll. Speaking after the meal, he celebrated the political progress in Iraq. Al-Maliki was picked for the post on Saturday, ending months of political deadlock.
"Yesterday was an important day, but I recognize that we still have more work to do," Bush said. "Democracy in Iraq will be a major blow to the terrorists who want to do us harm."
Bush spent about three hours at this military base in the California desert. He was enthusiastically received in the mess hall and in the Protestant chapel, where he attended a contemporary morning church service complete with guitars, clapping and a slide show above the altar.
"Because of your service, we're defeating an enemy overseas so we do not have to face them here at home," Bush told the Marines, choking up as he heralded the sacrifices of them and their families. "These are historic times, and your service makes me incredibly proud."
The president started his day with an hour-long bike ride in the mountains near Rancho Mirage.
In the afternoon, he visited former President Ford at his home not far from the mountaintop luxury hotel where Bush was spending the weekend. Ford, 92, was hospitalized 12 days in January with pneumonia and has not been seen much in public of late.
Bush also invited a small group of mayors and other government officials from around California for a private dinner at his hotel.
He plans to attend an immigration event in southern California and a congressional fundraiser in Las Vegas on Monday before returning to Washington.