PRIME MINISTER-desig-nate Nuri al-Maliki said yesterday he hoped to form a government within a week after meeting Washington's top defence and foreign affairs officials and two of Iraq's most powerful clerics.
As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld flew out, Maliki pledged to fill the key posts of interior and defence ministers with non-sectarian appointees.
Maliki has 30 days from last Saturday to present his Cabinet to Parliament for approval but has said he wants to move faster on creating a grand coalition of majority Shi'ite Muslims, Sunni Arabs and Kurds to combat the violence wracking the country.
"The dialogue is still ongoing with the different parties from which the government will be formed, including on the important ministries," Maliki told reporters after meeting Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the holy southern city of Najaf.
"God willing, it will be settled next week."
Maliki also met firebrand Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, an influential political leader who condemned the United States visit.
"It is a shocking intervention in Iraqi affairs," he told a joint news conference with Maliki, adding the new government's first duty was to ensure Iraq's stability and independence, including a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops.
As Maliki works towards building a government to avert civil war, gunmen killed a sister of one of the newly-appointed vice- presidents on Thursday, the latest high level assassination.
Meysoun al-Hashemi, sister of Sunni vice-president Tareq al-Hashemi, was gunned down in her car in Baghdad. Hashemi's brother was killed on April 13 and the brother of another leading Sunni politician was also kidnapped and killed this month.