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Monday, May 22, 2006 - Page updated at 10:46 AM

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Flurry of meetings, deaths in Iraq

Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq — A day after winning approval of most of his Cabinet, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki conducted a rapid series of meetings with top government and security officials, part of an orchestrated effort to signal urgency and leadership after a five-month power vacuum.

After a meeting with his ministers, al-Maliki vowed to use "maximum force against the terrorists and criminals" and repeated his intention to dismantle Iraq's armed militias.

The capital's continued violence underscored the difficulty of the task:

In a crowded downtown Baghdad restaurant, a man detonated explosives strapped to his waist, killing at least 13 people and wounding 18 others.

In east Baghdad, curious shoppers gathered around Iraqi policemen trying to defuse a bomb planted at the entrance of the New Baghdad Market. The bomb exploded, killing three people and wounding 20.

In the northwest of the city, a car bomb parked along a road killed three Iraqis and wounded 15.

Officials at a Baghdad hospital reported receiving seven shooting fatalities and 13 people wounded by gunfire.

Saturday, al-Maliki won parliamentary approval of a 36-member Cabinet. He still needs to name leaders for the two most powerful ministries, Defense and Interior, as well as the National Security ministry, but promised to do so this week.

In a news conference, al-Maliki said he expected he would be able to name the remaining ministers in two or three days and acknowledged that establishing some sense of security was the most immediate problem his government faced:

"We are aware of the security challenge and its effects. So we believe that combating this challenge cannot be by the use of force only. Although we will use maximum force against the terrorists and criminals, in addition to military power, we also need national reconciliation in order for trust to prevail among all Iraqis."

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Explaining the series of meetings with ministers, top generals, police leaders and Americans, including Army Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. military official in Iraq, Salah Abdul Razzaq, a spokesman for al-Maliki, said the new prime minister "wants to leave the impression that he is very concerned about security and that he wants to start right away to make plans for a new security program."

Al-Maliki had been expected to take a hard stand against insurgent violence; the open question for his administration is how tough he will be on Shiite militias, most of which are tied to the Shiite religious parties that make up the political bloc al-Maliki heads. The militias are behind much of Iraq's sectarian violence, which U.S. officials say is now the country's main problem.

Bush administration officials seized on al-Maliki's new government as a sign of progress in Iraq.

President Bush said he had called al-Maliki and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani on Sunday to congratulate them and promise continuing U.S. support for Iraq's fledgling government.

Formation of the government marks "a new chapter in our relationship with Iraq," Bush said, adding he had "assured them that the United States will continue to assist the Iraqis in the formation of a free country."

The new government also received praise from Jordan and Kuwait and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

In the capital, at least some Iraqis appeared to take heart in al-Maliki's flurry of activity, contrasting him with former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who was criticized for indecisiveness and ineffectual leadership.

Los Angeles Times reporters Raheem Salman, Zainab Hussein and Saif Hameed contributed to this report, which was supplemented by The Washington Post..

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