US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her British counterpart Jack Straw made a surprise visit to Iraq yesterday to express impatience with months of delay in the formation of a new government.
The two flew in secretly under tight security in a pouring rain from Britain in an unprecedented joint effort to move forward Iraqi political talks that have dragged on for months while sectarian violence has raged.
"We're going to urge that the negotiations be wrapped up," Rice said en route to Iraq. "It should be very clear to everyone that the time has come for these negotiations to produce a government of national unity."
The weather forced the two top diplomats to take road transport under high security on the dangerous road between the airport and the heavily guarded Green Zone where they immediately plunged into talks with Iraqi officials.
They began with meeting President Jalal Talabani and later held talks with powerful Shiite leader Abdel Aziz al-Hakim and Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari.
Rice smiled frostily and appeared awkward as she and Jaafari exchanged pleasantries before photographers at the start of their talks, chatting about the rare rain falling on Baghdad.
Media reports claim that US officials are dissatisfied with Jaafari's leadership and lobbied for his replacement -- claims the US denies. Abdel Mahdi was a rival of Jaafari for the nomination of the premier's position.
Officials acknowledged that it was a gamble to stage such a high-profile meeting at a critical time in the political process.
Gunmen, meanwhile, blew up a small Shiite mosque northeast of Baghdad yesterday, and the US military reported the death of three US soldiers.
The two crew members of an Apache helicopter that crashed southwest of Baghdad are presumed dead and efforts to recover their bodies are continuing,.
A US statement said the helicopter was believed to have been shot down about 5:30pm Saturday near Youssifiyah about 20km southwest of Baghdad.
"Two pilots are presumed dead, but recovery efforts continue following the crash," the statement said
Police reported the discovery of nearly 40 more bodies in several neighborhoods of Baghdad, apparent victims of revenge killings between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.