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Bush, Rice Praise New Iraqi Leader

President Bush said Saturday the new Iraqi government "will make America more secure' and suggested it 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," Bush told reporters upon his arrival here for an energy event.

"It will have the popular mandate to address Iraq's toughest long-term challenges," said Bush, standing in front of his helicopter. "These are major challenges and the new Iraqi government will not face them alone,

The president offered congratulations to the Iraqi people. He cast the day as a milestone in Iraq's path to democracy and as a victory in his war on terror.

"This historic achievement by determined Iraqis will make America more secure," he said.

Bush said the agreement represented compromise, consensus and the will of the Iraqi people.

He spoke hours after Iraq's president designated Jawad al-Maliki to form the new government. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called him a patriot and "somebody with whom we can work," even if he disagrees with the United States on certain issues.

Obviously relieved that months of political deadlock seemed to be at an end, Rice told reporters in a conference call earlier Saturday that the U.S. will try to help strengthen Iraq's first permanent democratically selected government.

"It's a good day for Iraq, an important day for Iraq," Rice said.

The administration's quick and high-profile response to the weekend's political events in Iraq reflected the high stakes the situation poses for Bush. The administration sees the establishment of a permanent government in Iraq as an important step toward stabilizing the country and allowing for the drawdown of U.S. forces there.

Bush's approval rating is at the lowest point of his presidency, and the daily tide of bad news from Iraq — beheadings and suicide bombings, attacks on U.S. soldiers — is a chief reason.

Squabbling among Iraq's political factions more than four months after national elections in December had weakened public approval in the U.S. for the war and fed the rising sectarian violence.

"They have chosen the path of unity for their people," Bush said. "There is going to be more tough fighting in Iraq."

Yet, he added: "the enemies of freedom suffered a real blow today."

Five U.S. soldiers were killed Saturday, including four whose vehicle hit a roadside bomb during a patrol in south Baghdad, the military said. Nearly 2,400 members of the U.S. military have died since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

Al-Maliki, a consensus nominee for prime minister, opposed both Saddam Hussein and the invasion that toppled the dictator.

Shiite politicians chose al-Maliki to replace their previous nominee, interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a polarizing figure whom the United States opposed behind the scenes. Al-Maliki has strong ties to al-Jaafari, and the support of the political group led by firebrand anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

"We won't always agree," Rice said, but "this is somebody with whom we can work."

Al-Maliki has 30 days to present his Cabinet to parliament for approval.

"The Iraqis are now well on their way to formation of a government of national unity," Rice said.

Iraq's majority Shiite Arabs won the right to choose a prime minister because they won the most votes in the December elections. The Shiites needed the consent of ethnic Kurds and minority Sunni Arabs to move forward, however.

"He's thought to be a strong figure, someone who is capable of getting things done," Rice said. "He's also thought to be someone who is very much an Iraqi patriot — very, very concerned about Iraq and Iraq's sovereignty."

Rice has never met al-Maliki, but did hold an awkward meeting with al-Jaafari in Baghdad this month. Although she did not disguise her lack of enthusiasm for al-Jaafari then, Rice had warm words for him on Saturday.

"I think he made a patriotic decision" in stepping aside as the Shiite candidate, "in order to pave the way for a resolution of what had become a quite difficult situation," Rice said. "His efforts and his act of personal courage there is to be appreciated and we do appreciate it."

Bush had hailed the elections as a milestone on the way to a stable democracy capable of defending itself. The administration viewed the stalemate over al-Jaafari with mounting frustration, although recent blunt statements from Bush and Rice about the need to move forward had no immediate effect.

Al-Jaafari had dug in his heels, partly in response to the U.S. pressure, and it took a change of heart last week from two Shiite clerics — backer al-Sadr and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to persuade al-Jaafari he was through.

Bush called Canada's prime minister, Stephen Harper, to discuss the developments in Iraq. The president also offered condolences about the four Canadian soldiers killed Saturday by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.

Just 35 percent of the public approved of Bush's handling of Iraq in AP-Ipsos polling this month.

Only 40 percent of the public approved of Bush's performance on foreign policy and the war on terror, another low-water mark for his presidency and down 9 points from a year ago. Just before the 2002 election, 64 percent of registered voters backed Bush on terror and foreign policy.