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Rice says U.S. will remain until Iraq `can defend itself'

BAGHDAD, Iraq—U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Iraqi government Sunday that U.S. forces would remain until the fledging nation "can defend itself," but more violence throughout the country suggested that was not imminent.

On Rice's unannounced daylong visit, 24 bodies were found in two separate locations, all killed execution style and some beheaded. And a car bomb in Baqouba narrowly missed that province's governor; while a second bombing in the city killed four people and wounded another 24.

At the same time, Rice said that Iraqi forces are progressing toward securing their own country and containing an insurgency trying to thwart the new government.

"The strategy for the transfer of responsibility to the Iraqi security forces is to equip and train the Iraqi security forces as quickly as possible," Rice said. "Our promise to the Iraqi leadership is the multinational forces are here to help Iraq defend itself until it can defend itself. We want that to be as soon as possible, I assure you."

Despite a relative lull in violence shortly after the Jan. 30 elections, the number of attacks surged one day after Prime Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari named his government April 28. According to al Jaafari's spokesman, Laith Kubba, more than 400 people have been killed in 70-plus bombings so far.

The grim discoveries began Sunday when police found 13 blindfolded and bound men in the massive Shiite slum of Sadr City, outraging the district's impoverished residents. Police and witnesses said the dead men were between the ages of 18 and 25 and had been dressed in civilian clothes. Each had fresh bullet wounds and their bodies were left in a dump, said an officer at the area's Rafidain Police Station. The officer asked to withhold his name for security reasons.

Rumors surfaced that the men had been executed in Diyala, a mostly Sunni province north of Baghdad, fueling sectarian tensions that are near boiling point. That also is the same province where the governor was targeted Sunday.

"The ones who killed these people want to create a civil war," said Saleem Mohammed, 35, who owns a grocery store in Sadr City.

Mohammed and other angry residents called for government forces to turn security over to the Mahdi Army, the militia led by the militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Support for al-Sadr, who led two bloody uprisings against U.S. and Iraqi forces last year, remains strong among poor Iraqis.

"I can't believe the government is still incapable of securing the country," said Mona Qassim, 20, the wife of a Mahdi militiaman. "These terrorists want to kill all Iraqis. They kill Sunnis and put them in Shiite neighborhoods. They kill Shiites and put them in Sunni neighborhoods."

In the central part of the country, another 11 bodies were found, this time in a chicken farm in Haquol, just south of Baghdad and part of an area many call "the Triangle of Death." Their hands were bound, police said, and they had gunshot wounds to the head. Four of them had reportedly been beheaded. Officials said they also found two bullet-riddled trucks nearby and believe the men were kidnapped truckers.

Rice began her trip in the northern city of Irbil before traveling to Salahuddin to meet with Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani. She finished her visit with a 2 {-hour discussion with al Jaafari, the Ministers of Interior and Defense and the nation's three deputy prime ministers, which include former Pentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi.

During that discussion, Rice urged the Iraqi leadership to craft its constitution by the Aug. 15 deadline spelled out in the Transitional Administrative Law, the interim constitution. She said the government should take advantage of the political momentum spurred by the election. She also said that process should include the largest minority sect, the Sunnis, a group that did not participate in the January election and has said it feels marginalized.

At a press conference with Rice, al Jaafari promised to find a way to include the Sunnis but that "does not infringe on the parliamentary traditions and the results of the elections."

The National Assembly was supposed to meet Sunday and name the chairman of the 55-member constitution committee. But the decision was delayed as members of the Shiite-based slate, the United Iraqi Alliance, and Kurdish leaders vied to lead the all-important committee. Members of the Assembly said that the UIA nominated assemblyman Sheikh Homam al Hamoodi. Kurdish members said they have nominated Fuad Masoum.

Despite the impasse, members agreed that once the committee votes, Hamoodi likely would be the chairman because 28 members of the committee are from his slate.

In other developments, kidnappers reportedly released the governor of Anbar, one day after U.S. military officials ended their offensive in Qaim, a city in the Anbar province. After they snatched him last week, the kidnappers said they would hold the Raja Nawaf Farhan al-Mahalawi until that offensive ended.

Also, a representative of the highest-ranking Shiite cleric in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, was killed with his brother in Baghdad on Sunday, according to a statement released by the office of Sistani. Qassim al Gurawy was a close adviser to the ayatollah on legislative and religious affairs. The two bodies were taken for burial in the southern Shiite holy city of Najaf.

Separately, insurgents ambushed a prominent judge traveling with his son in the treacherous area south of Baghdad known as the "Triangle of Death." Judge Mahdi Abu Maali and his son, Hani, were shot to death at 8 a.m. in the dangerous village of Latifiyah, police said. The judge worked as inspector general of the education ministry.


(Knight Ridder special correspondents Alaa Majeed, Yasser Salihee, Huda Ahmed, Mohammed al Dulaimy and Qassim Zein contributed to this report.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.