BAGHDAD, Iraq – Secretary of State Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Monday that while it is up to the Iraqi people to chose their own leaders, the international backers who have spent blood and money to end a dictatorship here have a right to expect that it will happen quickly.
Neither Rice nor Straw pointed to any specific accomplishment from a day and a half spent huddling with nearly all of Iraq's squabbling factions. But they said their message that Iraq must quickly form a government of national unity got through.
"We are entitled to say that whilst it is up to you, the Iraqis, to say who will fill these positions, someone must fill these positions and fill them quickly," Straw told reporters at a news conference.
"There is no doubt the political vacuum that is here at the moment is not assisting the security situation," Straw said.
Rice said the troubles in Iraq called for a strong leader who could help unify the people of this war-ravaged land.
But, she added, "It's not our job to say who that person ought to be."
Rice said the quick formation of a new government "is something that the international community has a right to expect."
"You cannot have a circumstance in which there is a political vacuum in a country like this that faces so much threat of violence," Rice said.
Both Rice and Straw emphasized that it was up to the Iraqis to decide on their new prime minister. Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the nominee of the Shiite bloc, has been widely criticized by Sunni and Kurdish politicians whom the Shiites need as partners to govern.
Straw and Rice both acknowledged that the Iraqis had made progress in building a democratic system after decades of Saddam Hussein's tyranny, economic sanctions and conflict.
The two diplomats spoke of the need for the next government to curb the power of sectarian militias alleged to have been behind the wave of reprisal killings of Shiites and Sunnis.
"You have to have the state with a monopoly of power," Rice said. "We have sent very strong messages" that there must be "a reining in of militias."
Rice and Straw said they set no deadlines, and there were no immediate signs of progress following the string of meetings the two held with Iraqi politicians and ethnic and religious power brokers.
Rice stayed overnight in the fortified Green Zone, the first time she has done so. The move was intended to signal confidence in Iraqi security measures and counter the impression among Iraqis that high U.S. officials swoop in to give orders and then quickly depart.
Mortar fire could be heard in the Green Zone as she dined with Sunni leaders and others.
Britain is Washington's closest ally in the 3-year-old war, and stations the second largest number of troops in the country after the United States.
U.S. officials and others have been stepping up pressure on the Iraqis to settle their differences and set up a new Cabinet based on results of December parliamentary elections.
Rice, Straw and other leaders hope a unified government would have both symbolic and practical effect to curb the continual violence and pave the way for U.S. and other coalition troops to begin heading home.
U.S. officials have allowed it to become an open secret that Washington wants al-Jaafari gone, and Rice looked pained as she made small talk with him for a few minutes before the cameras were ushered out.
Talks among Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders have stalled, in part because of opposition to al-Jaafari's nomination by the Shiite bloc. On Saturday, Shiite politician Qassim Dawoud joined Sunnis and Kurds in urging a new Shiite nominee, the first time a Shiite figure has issued such a public call.
On Sunday another Shiite legislator Jalal Eddin al-Sagheer called for al-Jaafari to withdraw his nomination, saying the prime minister no longer had the acceptance of Iraqi parties and the international community.