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US, Britain Urge Iraq's Leaders to Settle Political Differences

The United States and Britain are urging Iraq's leaders to settle their political differences and form a national unity government as quickly as possible, to stem the tide of violence in Iraq.

The message from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw during two days of talks with Iraq's political leaders in Baghdad was stark and direct.

Straw told reporters Monday the political vacuum left without a government three-and-a-half months after elections is undermining Iraq's security.

"It is now crucial that they (Iraqis) move quickly to ensure the nominations of the senior positions, have those agreed and then agree the cabinet, because there is frankly no doubt that the political vacuum that is there at the moment is not assisting the security situation and the country has got to move forward," Straw says.

Iraq's political stalemate centers on who will lead a new government. The Shi'ite coalition that won the mid-December elections has named Ibrahim al-Jaafari the acting prime minister, but his candidacy for a full four-year appointment has attracted strong opposition from Iraqi Kurds and the country's Sunni Muslims.

Rice and Straw emphasized that it is up to the Iraqis to decide on their new prime minister. However, they added that the next head of government must be a strong leader -- a unifying force who can bring stability and face the challenges of the Iraqi people.

The American and British envoys have been meeting with senior Iraqi figures since they arrived in the country, Sunday. Secretary of State Rice says Washington and London are not trying to dictate who should be Iraq's prime minister, but that the blood shed by American and British soldiers in Iraq gives the allies the right to press for action on the political front.

"The goal of our presence here, the goal of our having liberated this country from Saddam Hussein is not the leave the job undone," Rice says. "The goal is to leave the foundation for a democratic and stable Iraq. Because once that democratic and stable Iraq is in place you will have a different kind of Middle East and our own security will be much stronger."

Sectarian violence has spiraled since a Shi'ite shrine was bombed on February 22nd. Many Iraqis and foreign governments have said the only way to curtail the bloodshed and avert a possible civil war is to establish an inclusive coalition government.