WASHINGTON - The inauguration of Iraq's new government marks a new era in relations with the country that the U.S. has occupied for more than three years, President Bush said Sunday.
"The formation of a unity government in Iraq is a new day for the millions of Iraqis who want to live in peace," Bush said. "And the formation of the unity government in Iraq begins a new chapter in our relationship with Iraq."
Bush briefly spoke to reporters from the White House with his wife, Laura, at his side, to highlight the political development without mentioning the violence that still rages in Iraq.
The president did not speak of the spree of bombing, mortar rounds and a drive-by shooting that killed at least 18 Iraqis and wounded dozens - most of them hit by a suicide bomber who targeted a Baghdad restaurant during Sunday's lunch hour.
Bush said he called President Jalal Talabani, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and parliament speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani to congratulate them on working together.
"I assured them that the United States will continue to assist Iraqis in the formation of a new country because I fully understand that a free Iraq will be an important ally in the war on terror, will serve as a devastating defeat for the terrorists and al-Qaida and will serve as example for others in the region who desire to be free."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Iraq has made "extraordinary progress politically" by inaugurating the government even though sectarian infighting has stalled the selection of Cabinet posts for overseeing the army, police forces and national security.
"They want to make sure that they have it right," Rice said on "Fox News Sunday." "I think it's quite obvious that when you take this kind of time, it shows the kind of determination and maturity."
Rice said U.S. Embassy officials in Baghdad told her that 90 percent of the Iraqi parliament will support the new government.
The U.S. hopes the new government will help clear the way for the withdrawal of American troops. Rice said it is too early to talk about precisely when that will happen, but that U.S. officials will sit down with Iraqi leaders to come up with a plan.
"Clearly larger number of Iraqis are being trained, clearly they are taking on more security responsibility, and it has always been the plan that as they take these responsibilities, we will have less to do," Rice said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "But there are still some difficult places to deal with, and we want to make sure we have the forces there that are needed."
About 132,000 U.S. troops are now in Iraq, with U.S. military commanders sending several hundred more to bolster security as the government in Baghdad takes shape.