BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq's new prime minister promised Sunday to use "maximum force" if necessary to end the brutal insurgent and sectarian violence wracking the country, while a homicide bomber killed more than a dozen people at a restaurant in downtown Baghdad.
Although he focused on the need to end bloodshed, Nouri al-Maliki also had to address unfinished political negotiations at a Cabinet meeting on the government's first full day in office.
Al-Maliki said the appointment of chiefs for the key Defense and Interior ministries should not "take more than two or three days." He is seeking candidates who are independent and have no ties to Iraq's myriad armed groups.
The two ministries, which oversee the army and the police, are crucial for restoring stability, and al-Maliki needs to find candidates with wide acceptance from his broad-based governing coalition of Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds.
Failure to set the right tone could further alienate the disaffected Sunni Arab minority, which is the backbone of the insurgency. Or it could anger Shiite militias, some of which are thought to number in the thousands.
"We are aware of the security challenge and its effects. So we believe that facing this challenge cannot be achieved through the use of force only, despite the fact that we are going to use the maximum force in confronting the terrorists and the killers who are shedding blood," al-Maliki said.
Disarming militias, whose members are believed to have infiltrated the security services, will be a priority, he said, along with promoting national reconciliation, improving the country's collapsing infrastructure and setting up a special protection force for Baghdad.
It is unclear if al-Maliki, a Shiite with the conservative Islamic Dawa party, will be able to persuade others in the religious United Iraqi Alliance to use their influence to try to disarm Shiite armed groups.
Many Sunni Arabs think some Shiite militias are behind death squads blamed for sectarian violence that has escalated in recent months, leaving dozens of bodies to be found scattered around Iraq every day.
Al-Maliki decried what he called "sectarian cleansing."
"The militias, death squads and the killings are all abnormal phenomena," he said. "We should finish the issue of militias because we cannot imagine a stability and security in this country with the presence of militias that kill and kidnap."
The new government was welcomed by several Arab leaders, many of whom worry that the violence in Iraq could spill over to its neighbors and that their own extremists might find fertile training ground in Iraq and eventually return to their homelands to wreak havoc.
In neighboring Jordan, King Abdullah II said he hoped the seating of al-Maliki's government proves a "significant step toward building a new Iraq that would be able to fulfill the aspirations of its people for a better life, democracy, (political) pluralism and stronger national unity."
Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said the new Cabinet could open the way for a conference in Iraq bringing together representatives of the country's diverse ethnic and political forces, possibly as early as next month.
Kuwait's leader, Emir Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, whose country was invaded by Saddam Hussein's army in 1990, expressed hope the Cabinet members will succeed in "closing their ranks and using their capabilities in building Iraq."
Political infighting, however, kept al-Maliki from filling the defense and interior posts before the Cabinet was sworn in Saturday.
Sunni Arabs are demanding the defense ministry, which controls Iraq's army, to counterbalance the Shiite-controlled interior ministry, which is responsible for the police.
Al-Maliki has said he wants to accelerate the pace at which army and police recruits are trained in an effort to speed up the withdrawal of U.S.-led international troops from Iraq.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said the new government must "get the security ministries to transform in such a way that they will have the confidence of the Iraqi peoples."
"The next six months will be truly critical for Iraq," he said in an interview with The Associated Press.
In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said al-Maliki needed five or six days to pick the two men to head those two ministries.
"The prime minister has made very clear to us and to the people in the other parties that he wants to have people in whom he has supreme confidence because of the importance of this," she told Fox News.
She said al-Maliki told her during a visit in late April about the need "to re-establish confidence in the police, to re-establish confidence in the ability of the government to deal with this."
President Bush telephoned al-Maliki on Sunday to assure him the Untied States would support his government.
"I fully understand that a free Iraq will be an important ally in the war on terror, will serve as a devastating defeat for the terrorists and Al Qaeda, and will serve as an example for others in the region who desire to be free," Bush said.
Shortly after the first Cabinet meeting, a homicide bomber killed at least 13 people and wounded 17 by blowing himself up among filled lunch tables in a downtown Baghdad restaurant popular with police officers. Three of the dead were policemen.
The attack at the Safar restaurant was part of a spree of bombing that killed at least 19 Iraqis and wounded dozens Sunday.
One bomb attack hit a busy fruit market in New Baghdad, a mixed Shiite, Sunni Arab and Christian area in an eastern part of the capital. Police found one bomb and detonated it after trying to evacuate the market, but a second, undiscovered bomb exploded moments later, killing three civilians and wounding 23.
A car bomb targeting a police patrol in northwestern Baghdad killed a bystander and injured 15 people.