Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Thursday in Baghdad with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other officials as the sectarian spiral of revenge killings between Shiites and Sunnis threatened to undermine his government. The tit-for-tat killings have become the deadliest violence in Iraq, with thousands slain in recent months, and Shiite and Sunni parties in his coalition accuse each other of backing militias.
Before the meeting, she told reporters she would tell Iraq's leaders they have limited time to settle political differences spurring sectarian and insurgent violence.
"They don't have time for endless debate of these issues," Rice said during a news conference aboard her plane. "They have really got to move forward. That is one of the messages that I'll take, but it will also be a message of support and what can we do to help."
In other developments:
Al-Maliki is under intensified pressure to find an end to the Shiite-Sunni killings that have torn Iraq apart for months despite the government's calls for militias — many of which have ties to parties in the government — to put down their arms.
"The dissolution of militia must be through the political powers. There is more than one way leading to a solution, and the militias will dissolve themselves," al-Maliki told the Associated Press during an "iftar" dinner, the meal that ends the daily Ramadan fast.
"Militias do not conform with a government. Political parties have militias and they are part of the government and participate in the political process. The parties are required to dissolve these militias," he said.
Al-Maliki has frequently called for militias to be dissolved, insisting that weapons must only be in the hands of national security forces. But Sunni leaders have accused the government of balking at moving forcefully against Shiite militias blamed in much of the violence because of their links to Shiite political parties.
Rice said Iraqis must resolve for themselves complex problems such as the division of oil wealth, possible changes to the national constitution and the desire for greater autonomy in various regions of the country.
"Our role is to support all the parties and indeed to press all the parties to work toward that resolution quickly because obviously the security situation is not one that can be tolerated and it is not one that is being helped by political inaction," she said.
Car bombs, as well as other explosions and shootings, killed 34 people across the country Wednesday. At least 21 U.S. soldiers have been killed since Saturday, a disproportionately high number. Most of the casualties have been in Baghdad amid a massive security sweep by American and Iraqi forces that has been going on since August.
"Obviously the security side and the political side are linked," Rice told reporters.
She described the task as "the ability to get everybody to understand precisely how their interests are going to be represented and how their interests are going to be served in this political process."
Such an understanding would draw Iraqis out of the insurgency working against the al-Maliki government and away from the sectarian militias blamed for much of the recent violence, she said.
"This visit will be an opportunity for consultation and dialogue on a number of issues that are important to both countries," al-Maliki said through an interpreter.
"This is, of course, a time of challenge for the Iraqi people," Rice said. "They are a committed people and we know they will overcome these challenges."
In addition to meeting al-Maliki and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Rice also was to meet with Sunni leaders.
The Bush administration has made similar arguments at each stage along Iraq's stop-and-go struggle toward a functioning democracy. Although an elected parliamentary government has replaced Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, it has been unable to counter the rise in violence.
On Monday, al-Maliki announced a new security plan to unite the feuding parties, creating local committees in which Sunnis and Shiites will work together to manage efforts to stop the violence on a district-by-district level.
But contentious details of the plan still must be worked out — and Shiite and Sunni parties for a second day on Wednesday put off negotiations.
At the same time, Sunni-led insurgents have continued their attacks targeting civilians, Iraqi officials and U.S. and Iraqi troops.
The conflict, now in its fourth year, has claimed the lives of more than 2,700 American troops and thousands of Iraqis and cost more than $300 billion.
There may also be a political cost for the Republican Party. With less than five weeks left before congressional elections, new polls show Americans are increasingly unhappy with the war in Iraq and President Bush's leadership.