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Straw: Situation worst since war's end

LONDON -- Foreign Secretary Jack Straw of Britain said yesterday that the current violence in Iraq is the worst the US-led coalition has faced since the end of the war.

"The lid of the pressure cooker has come off," Straw told British Broadcasting Corp. radio, blaming much of the violence on "tensions and pressures" that built up under Saddam Hussein's rule.

"There is no doubt that the current situation is . . . the most serious that we have faced," he added, as coalition forces faced violence from both Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim militants.

Despite the surge in violence, President Bush won renewed pledges of support for US efforts in Iraq from allies Italy, Poland, and El Salvador, the White House said.

On the one-year anniversary of Hussein's fall, Bush spoke by telephone with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, President Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland, and President Francisco Flores of El Salvador, who have all sent troops to Iraq.

"All four leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the Iraqi people for a free and democratic Iraq and to defeating the minority and extremist elements who are seeking to derail the transition process through a violent power play," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

Bush, who is at his ranch near Crawford, Texas, was briefed on military operations aimed at putting down uprisings in Fallujah and elsewhere, speaking by video link to his national security team, military leaders, and Iraq's US administrator, L. Paul Bremer III.

Straw acknowledged that many of those taking part in the insurgency were Iraqis, not foreign fighters. But he insisted the majority of the country wants a smooth transition to democracy.

"It is plainly the fact today that there are larger numbers of people . . . Iraqis, not foreign fighters, who are engaged in this insurgency," he told the BBC.

"We need to be aware that the vast majority of Iraqis, whilst they do not like the occupation, they like the fact that Saddam has gone, and they are desperate for a smooth transition of power to a representative and then a democratic government."

In recent days Iraq has seen the heaviest fighting since Baghdad fell to US troops a year ago. Fiery Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has urged Iraqis to rise up against the US occupation, raising doubts about whether Iraq will be stable enough for the coalition to transfer sovereignty on June 30.

Prime Minister Tony Blair will visit UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Bush for talks next week on the situation.

Two lawmakers in Blair's governing Labor Party yesterday demanded that Parliament be recalled from its Easter recess to debate the crisis.

Meanwhile, Menzies Campbell, foreign affairs spokesman for the opposition Liberal Democrats, criticized the tactics of US troops trying to crush the uprising.

"Helicopter gunships and F14s over residential areas are hardly likely to persuade moderate Iraqi opinion to continue to support the coalition effort," he said.

"The chances of winning hearts and minds in those circumstances are going to be very, very much reduced. I think this is an area in which the UK should be urging the Americans to show some military restraint."

Material from Reuters was included in this report.

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