Iraq Cabinet Meets, Restaurant Bombed

An Iraqi plain cloth security member inspects the site where a suicide bomber blew himself up inside a restaurant in Baghdad killing 13 People and injuring 17 others, 21 May 2006. At least 20 people were killed across Iraq on the first full day in office of a new national unity government. AFP PHOTO/KARIM SAHIB AFP Photo

A suicide bomber killed at least 13 people and injured 17 when he blew himself up Sunday in a downtown Baghdad restaurant frequented by police. The attack came as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pledged to soon fill vacancies in his two key security ministries.

The attack against the Safar restaurant was part of a spree of roadside bombs, mortar rounds and a drive-by shooting that killed at least 18 Iraqis and wounded dozens.

The 12 dead in the restaurant attack included three police officers, said Police Col. Abbas Mohammed. The explosion struck at 1:20 p.m. during the crowded lunch hour in Baghdad's mixed Karradah neighborhood. Blood was splattered on the restaurant's white tile walls, and wrought iron chairs were scattered throughout the corner store.

Al-Maliki's new government met for the first Sunday. The prime minister hopes the government will eventually improve Iraq's military and police forces, persuade the insurgents to lay down its weapons and disband militias, reduce sectarian violence and restore stability to Iraq.

If all that can be done, it would set the stage for the eventual withdrawal of tens of thousands of U.S. and other foreign troops.

But political infighting left three important posts in the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish Cabinet temporarily filled, the very ones responsible for managing Iraq's army, police forces and national security.

Al-Maliki, a Shiite, has said he was determined to soon find independent, nonsectarian officials to fill those three portfolios in his government.

"I do not think that the naming of defense and interior ministers will take more than two or three days," he said at a news conference.

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."

The inauguration of Iraq's new government marks a new era in relations with the country, President Bush said Sunday.

"The formation of a unity government in Iraq is a new day for the millions of Iraqis who want to live in peace," Mr. Bush said. "And the formation of the unity government in Iraq begins a new chapter in our relationship with Iraq."

Mr. 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 Qaeda, and will serve as an example for others in the region who desire to be free."

But, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq said the country's new prime minister has his work cut out for him. Zalmay Khalilzad said the next six months will be truly critical."

The ambassador said providing security and services will be the main challenges. He said the prime minister has already approved a plan for "infrastructure security," and is working on a strategy for security in Baghdad.

Khalilzad also said he's ready to engage in talks with the Iranians about their relationship with Iraq. American officials have concerns about Iranian influence in Iraq, including possible ties to Shiite militias.

In other developments:

  • Japan's prime minister on Sunday refused to say when the country's troops would leave Iraq, saying the government was still discussing whether and when to pull out, despite a media reports suggesting a July withdrawal.

  • Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema said Saturday that the new Italian government would begin planning the withdrawal of its troops from Iraq next week.

  • At 6:30 a.m. on Saturday, several hours before legislators began to arrive at the Green Zone, suspected insurgents set off a bomb hidden in a paper bag in a Shiite district of Baghdad, killing 19 people and wounding 58, police said. The blast occurred near a food stand in Sadr City where men gather to wait for jobs as day laborers, police Maj. Hashim al-Yaser said.

  • U.S. military commanders are sending several hundred additional U.S. troops to Iraq to bolster security as a new government takes shape in Baghdad, a defense official said Friday. The extra troops are from a 1st Armored Division battalion that has been stationed in Kuwait as a reserve force. Details of the movement, including timing, were not immediately available. The 1st Armored Division has had a brigade stationed in Kuwait for several months serving as a "call forward force," meaning it could be called upon to augment the troops in Iraq in certain situations.

  • A House committee will review the military's investigation into a firefight in western Iraq involving U.S. Marines that left at least 15 civilians dead, the panel's chairman said Friday. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said a committee hearing will not address the substance of the incident last November in Haditha but rather will review the process of how the investigation was carried out. The military began the administrative investigation to review whether the Marines involved lied about what happened.

    Al-Maliki said his government would use "maximum force in confronting the terrorists and the killers who are shedding blood" in Iraq.

    But he also said it would try to reduce public support for insurgent groups by promoting national reconciliation, improving the country's collapsing infrastructure, and setting up a special protection force for Baghdad, one of Iraq's most violent cities.

    He said Baghdad "must end its crisis of sectarian violence that is causing many families to flee their homes."

    Al-Maliki's national unity government took office Saturday, five months after the election of Iraq's parliament and following prolonged bitter wrangling over the Cabinet posts.

    At least 33 people were killed in a series of attacks across Iraq on Saturday, and police found the bodies of 22 Iraqis who apparently had been kidnapped and tortured by death squads that plague Iraq.

    The new permanent government has been portrayed by Western officials as the best hope for ending violence in Iraq.

    British Prime Minister Tony Blair, said: "Despite all the attempts to disrupt the political process they have a government, a government ... of national unity for the first time."

    Blair said coalition soldiers hoped to transfer their duties to Iraqis as soon as possible, but that British troops would remain in Iraq for as long as they were needed.
    • Joel Roberts

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