Countdown in Iraq begins

BAGHDAD, Iraq – With Iraq perched on the brink of disaster, its new prime minister has 30 days to complete a unity government charged with quelling a raging insurgency and rampant sectarian violence.

Much of the U.S. hope of a military withdrawal is riding on the success of Jawad al-Maliki, who promised Saturday to swiftly finish assembling a government that includes “all components of Iraqi society.”

The tough-talking new leader, who once managed Shiite guerrillas from exile in Syria during Saddam Hussein’s rule, signaled he was prepared to crack down on Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias responsible for the rise in sectarian violence that threatens to plunge the nation into civil war.

“Weapons should be only in the hands of the government,” al-Maliki said.

President Bush suggested that the new Iraqi government could be the beginning of an eventual drawdown of American forces from Iraq.

“The new Iraqi government will assume greater responsibility for their nation’s security,” he said during a trip to California. “It will have the popular mandate to address Iraq’s toughest long-term challenges.

“This historic achievement by determined Iraqis will make America more secure,” Bush said.

In clear signs of the ongoing crisis, five American soldiers died Saturday in roadside bombings south of Baghdad, and Marines killed four insurgents in a gunbattle in Ramadi.

After repeated delays, Parliament convened Saturday in the heavily guarded Green Zone and elected a president, two vice presidents, a Parliament speaker and two deputies.

President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who won a second term, named al-Maliki as prime minister-designate, a formality after the dominant Shiite bloc replaced outgoing Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. Sunnis and Kurds had refused to accept al-Jaafari.

That laid the foundation for post-Hussein Iraq’s first fully constitutional government. By quelling the insurgency and bloody Shiite-Sunni violence, it is hoped, the new government could enable the United States to begin withdrawing its 133,000 troops.

Few believe the task will be easy. It remains uncertain whether Iraqi leaders representing religiously and ethnically based parties can set aside their interests and rise to the challenge of managing a nation teetering on disaster.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, a key player in tortuous political negotiations since Dec. 15 elections, told reporters improvement will not be instantaneous.

“I think that with the formation of a national unity government with a good program and with competent ministers, Iraq will be on the right trajectory,” he said.

Al-Maliki’s toughest task will be assigning control of the defense and interior ministries, responsible for the army and the police. Sunnis have accused the Shiite-run Interior Ministry of tolerating death squads that target Sunni civilians. Army and police ranks are believed to be infiltrated by militia members.

The current interior minister belongs to the largest Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is believed to have a militia. U.S. officials have insisted the next minister have no ties to militias.

Another militia, the Mahdi Army, is controlled by radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who supported al-Jaafari for another term. Al-Sadr refuses to disband his force unless other militias are abolished and the army and police prove capable of protecting Shiites from Sunni extremists.

While politicians from all sides called for unity and an end to sectarianism in Saturday’s Parliament session, the differences were visible.

The new Sunni Parliament speaker, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, insisted the armed forces must be built “on the basis of national loyalty” and spoke strongly against sectarian violence – code among Sunnis for militia violence.

Then a lawmaker stood and chided him for not speaking out against terrorism – a reference to the Sunni-led insurgency.

In another sign of the security challenge, suspected insurgents exploded two bombs Saturday in a market in Muqdadiyah, about 60 miles northeast of Baghdad, killing at least two Iraqis and wounding 17. The second blast was timed to hit emergency crews arriving at the scene.

The bullet-ridden bodies of 10 Iraqis were found in and around Baghdad, many blindfolded, with their hands and legs bound. Some appeared to have been tortured, and one had been decapitated, police said.

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