Rice and Straw make surprise visit in effort to break government stalemate

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The Independent Online

Condoleezza Rice and Jack Straw flew together to Baghdad yesterday on a surprise visit aimed at accelerating the formation of a new government in Iraq, which could halt the slide towards civil war.

The two officials headed straight to Iraq from north-west England, where the US Secretary of State had been hosted by Mr Straw on a visit to the UK which was dominated by protests. Anti-war protesters staged noisy demonstrations outside every event in Liverpool and in the Foreign Secretary's Blackburn constituency during their two-day tour.

Yesterday the demonstrations continued as anti-war protesters gathered in Parliament Square.

On their way to Baghdad, the two stressed the urgent need for a government of national unity that they hope will include members of the minority Sunni community, who were the big losers in the Iraq elections last December.

"We're going to urge that the negotiations be wrapped up," Ms Rice told reporters on the plane. "There is significant international concern about the time the formation of this government is taking, and therefore we believe and we will be urging the Iraqi leaders we see to press ahead more quickly," Mr Straw said.

A Foreign Office official denied that the two would deliver an ultimatum to the current Prime Minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, to stand down. Mr Jaafari, widely considered to have been an ineffectual interim leader, has had his name put forward by Shia leaders to stay on at the head of a sovereign Iraqi government.

It is not known how Iraqi Shias reacted to the intervention by Ms Rice and Mr Straw, who were to meet with Iraqi leaders during their lightning visit. Mr Jaafari has already accused the Americans, who have made no secret of their opposition to him continuing in the post, of interfering.

There are increasing signs of sectarian tensions in the wake of the bombing of one of Iraq's holiest Shia shrines last month as the insurgency now moves to target Iraqi groups rather than coalition forces with the goal of fomenting civil war.

Nearly 40 bodies were found in several districts of Baghdad yesterday, while the insurgents destroyed a small Shia mosque northeast of Baghdad.

Ms Rice admitted that the country was "vulnerable" to civil war in a television interview broadcast yesterday. She told ITV's Jonathan Dimbleby programme: "Of course it's vulnerable when you have people like Zarqawi trying to stimulate civil war and trying to foment civil war.

"Of course it's vulnerable when it's had years of sectarian tension where people settle their differences by repression and are now trying to do that by politics and by compromise ... The alternative is that these people would continue to live in the captivity of a tyrant."

Ms Rice defended the decision to overthrow Saddam during her visit to the UK, but surprised many when on Friday she made the frank admission that "thousands" of tactical errors had been made. But the statement, which seemed to be strikingly "off message" for a Bush administration official, was swiftly corrected. By Saturday, Ms Rice was saying that she had been speaking "figuratively".

Her admission of tactical errors by the US could help the British Government at a time when new books published in the UK and leaked diplomatic memos have highlighted the disastrous decisions taken in the aftermath of the lightning collapse of Saddam's army during the 2003 invasion.

These have highlighted the aggressive tactics used by the US army after the war at a time when troops should have been engaging in "hearts and minds " operations and focused on rebuilding, and the controversial US decision to disband the Sunni-dominated security forces, which have been replaced by Shias often bent on revenge.

The Iraqi crisis has been complicated by American accusations that Iran, which is close to the Iraqi Shia leader, has been stirring up trouble in retaliation for the West's drive aimed at curbing Tehran's nuclear ambitions. The US has given its blessing to the first US-Iran talks focusing solely on the Iraqi situation, but has ruled out broader discussion that could lead to a resumption of relations, which have not recovered since the 1979 hostage-taking at the American embassy in Tehran.

The US has given its blessing to the first US-Iran talks focusing solely on the Iraqi situation, but has ruled out broader discussions that could lead to a resumption of relations.

In Blackburn, Mr Straw was accused of reopening the wounds of the Iraq conflict by inviting the US Secretary of State to his home turf. The Muslim Asian population in Blackburn makes up 25 per cent of the population and representatives told Ms Rice of their opposition to US foreign policy in the Middle East.

* The two crew members of an Apache helicopter that was shot down south-west of Baghdad on Saturday are presumed dead, the US military said yesterday.