US says will hold Maliki to his promises

news31.jpgBAGHDAD (Reuters) — US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Washington would hold Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to his promises to reduce sectarian violence and that it was now time to see results.

A day after Defence Secretary Robert Gates said Maliki could lose his job if he failed to stop communal bloodshed, Rice stepped-up pressure on the premier as she began a Middle East tour to drum up support for President George W. Bush’s plan to send 21,500 extra troops to Iraq.

Echoing previous remarks that Maliki’s government was living on “borrowed time” and that America’s patience was running out, Rice said the Iraqi government understood that success in a plan to secure Baghdad was “a very high priority”.

“To say that your patience isn’t limited is simply to say that the Iraqi government needs to start to show results,” Rice told reporters before arriving in Israel on Saturday, according to a State Department transcript of her remarks.

“We’re going to get an opportunity to see whether or not this is working, whether or not the Iraqis are living up to their obligations.” With Bush’s critics saying his new strategy depends too heavily on Maliki keeping promises he failed to keep before, administration officials are piling pressure on Iraqi politicians to solve their differences and avert civil war.

Maliki has vowed to lead a Baghdad operation he says will hit not only insurgents from the once dominant Sunni minority but also factions loyal to fellow Shiites — a key demand of Washington and Sunnis, who say Iran is backing Shiite gunmen.

Maliki, who leads a fractious coalition of Shiites, Sunni Arabs and ethnic Kurds, said on Saturday his government agreed with Bush’s plan for Iraqis to lead the security push although some of his hard-line Shiite allies have opposed it.

At a Senate committee hearing, Gates said on Friday Maliki might have to quit if Iraqi political blocs withdrew their support over his failure to deliver. Following recent meetings between Bush and top Iraqi politicians, there have been reports that Washington is willing to back a new coalition.

“I think the first consequence that he has to face is the possibility that he’ll lose his job,” Gates said.

“There’s some sense that … there are beginning to be some people around that may say… ‘I can do better than he’s doing,’ in terms of… making progress,” he said.

Police found 31 bodies in Baghdad in the 24 hours to Saturday night, many tortured and shot dead, in a typical case of the sectarian violence that is forcing thousands to flee.

Rice warns Iran

Two days after US forces raided an Iranian government office in the Iraqi city of Erbil in the second such operation in a month, Rice repeated a warning by Bush that Washington will not tolerate Tehran’s alleged support for armed groups in Iraq.

“I think there is plenty of evidence that there is Iranian involvement with these networks that are making high-explosive IEDs [bombs] and that are endangering our troops, and that’s going to be dealt with.” But she said Bush’s order to target Iranians operating in Iraq did not mark a widening of the conflict.

“Obviously the president doesn’t take options off the table, but I think that it’s really fair to say that we believe this is something that can be done in Iraq.” Facing hostility from some fellow Republicans as well as Democrats, Bush used his weekly radio address on Saturday to make clear he would not back off his plan to send more troops to Iraq and accused critics of failing to offer an alternative.

“Those who refuse to give this plan a chance to work have an obligation to offer an alternative that has a better chance for success. To oppose everything while proposing nothing is irresponsible,” he said.

US Sen. Hillary Clinton, a vocal critic of Bush’s new strategy and a possible 2008 presidential hopeful, met Maliki and other officials during a one-day visit to the country on Saturday.

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