Iraq's new strongman PM vows to use 'maximum force' on terrorists

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The Independent Online

Iraq's prime minister promised Sunday to use "maximum force" if necessary to end the dozens of brutal slayings taking place daily in Iraq, including a lunchtime suicide bombing that killed more than a dozen diners in downtown Baghdad.

Nouri al-Maliki told his Cabinet on its first full day that the appointment of an interior and defense minister should not "take more than two or three days," as he worked to find candidates that would satisfy his requirements of independence, and lack of allegiance to Iraq's myriad paramilitary militias and armed groups.

The two ministries and how they are used are be crucial to any strategy aiming to restore a semblance of stability to Iraq. Failure to set the right tone could further alienate disaffected Sunni Arabs and balloon the insurgency, while a wrong appointment could strengthen Shiite paramilitaries - 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, would also 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 effectively convince others in the religious United Iraqi Alliance to use their influence to try and disarm some armed groups.

Many Sunni Arabs think that some extremist paramilitary militias make up the death squads blamed for the dozens of bodies that are found around Iraq. Such death squads are blamed for what al-Maliki described as "sectarian cleansing."

"The militias, death squads and the killings are all abnormal phenomena. 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," al-Maliki said.

Political infighting left the defense and interior ministries unfilled when the government was sworn in Saturday.

Sunni Arabs have demanded 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.

"The next six months will be truly critical for Iraq," U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told The Associated Press. He added that achieve stability, the new government must "get the security ministries to transform in such a way that they will have the confidence of the Iraqi peoples."

In Washington, U.S. 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 Sunday.

She said that 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."

U.S. President George W. Bush called al-Maliki Sunday to assure him that the Untied States would support his government "in the formation of a free country, because 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-Qaida, and will serve as an example for others in the region who desire to be free."

Shortly after al-Maliki's first Cabinet meeting, a suicide bomber killed at least 13 people and injured 17 walked into a downtown Baghdad restaurant popular with police officers and blew himself up amid the bustling lunch tables. Three of the dead were policemen.

The attack against the Safar restaurant was part of a spree of roadside bombs that killed at least 19 Iraqis and wounded dozens.

Two roadside bombs also exploded in a crowded fruit market in New Baghdad, a mixed Shiite, Sunni Arab and Christian area in an eastern part of the capital. Police found the first bomb and detonated it after trying to evacuate the market, but a second hidden bomb exploded a moment later, killing three civilians and wounding 23.

A car bomb targeting a police patrol in northwestern Baghdad instead killed a bystander and injuring 15 others.