BAGHDAD -- Iraq's new prime minister promised yesterday to use ''maximum force" if necessary to end the brutal insurgent and sectarian violence racking the country, while a suicide bomber killed more than a dozen people at a restaurant in downtown Baghdad.
Although he focused on the need to end bloodshed, Nouri al-Maliki also addressed unfinished political negotiations at a Cabinet meeting on the government's first full day in office.
Maliki said the appointment of chiefs for the key defense and interior ministries should not ''take more than two or three days." He is seeking candidates who are independent and have no ties to Iraq's myriad armed groups.
The two ministries, which oversee the army and the police, are crucial for restoring stability, and Maliki needs to find candidates with wide acceptance from his broad-based governing coalition of Shi'ites, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds.
Failure to set the right tone could further alienate the disaffected Sunni Arab minority, which is the backbone of the insurgency. Or it could anger Shi'ite militias, some of which are thought to number in the thousands.
''We are aware of the security challenge and its effects," Maliki said. ''So we believe that facing this challenge cannot be achieved through the use of force only, despite the fact that we are going to use the maximum force in confronting the terrorists and the killers who are shedding blood."
Disarming militias, whose members are believed to have infiltrated the security services, will be a priority, he said, along with promoting national reconciliation, improving the country's collapsing infrastructure and setting up a special protection force for Baghdad.
It is unclear whether Maliki, a Shi'ite with the conservative Islamic Dawa party, will be able to persuade others in the religious United Iraqi Alliance to use their influence to try to disarm Shi'ite armed groups.
Many Sunni Arabs think some Shi'ite militias are behind death squads blamed for sectarian violence that has escalated in recent months, with dozens of bodies being found across Iraq daily.
Maliki decried what he called ''sectarian cleansing."
''The militias, death squads, and the killings are all abnormal phenomena," he said. ''We should finish the issue of militias because we cannot imagine stability and security in this country with the presence of militias that kill and kidnap."
The new government was welcomed by several Arab leaders, many of whom worry that the violence in Iraq could spill over to its neighbors and that their own extremists might find fertile training ground in Iraq and eventually return to their homelands to wreak havoc.
In neighboring Jordan, King Abdullah II said he hoped the seating of Maliki's government proves a ''significant step toward building a new Iraq that would be able to fulfill the aspirations of its people for a better life, democracy, [political] pluralism, and stronger national unity."
Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa said the new Cabinet could open the way for a conference in Iraq bringing together representatives of the country's diverse ethnic and political forces, possibly as early as next month.
Political infighting, however, kept Maliki from filling the defense and interior posts before the Cabinet was sworn in Saturday.
Sunni Arabs are demanding the defense ministry, which controls Iraq's army, counterbalance the Shi'ite-controlled interior ministry, which is responsible for the police.
In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Maliki needed five or six days to pick the two people to head those two ministries.
''The prime minister has made very clear to us and to the people in the other parties that he wants to have people in whom he has supreme confidence because of the importance of this," she told Fox News.
She said Maliki told her during a visit in late April about the need ''to reestablish confidence in the police, to reestablish confidence in the ability of the government to deal with this."
Shortly after the first Cabinet meeting, a suicide bomber killed at least 13 people and wounded 17 by blowing himself up among filled lunch tables in a downtown Baghdad restaurant. Three of the dead were policemen.
The attack at the Safar restaurant was part of a spate of bombings that killed at least 19 Iraqis and wounded dozens yesterday.
One bomb attack hit a busy fruit market in New Baghdad, killing three civilians and wounding 23. A car bomb targeting a police patrol in northwestern Baghdad killed a bystander and injured 15 people.