WEST SACRAMENTO, Calif. – (AP) President Bush said Saturday that the new political leadership in Iraq will shoulder the burden for securing the country, but he did not commit to a drawdown of American forces that now are playing the lead role.

“There’s going to be more tough fighting ahead in Iraq and there’ll be more days of sacrifice and struggle,” Bush said. “Yet, the enemies of freedom have suffered a real blow today, and we’ve taken a great stride on the march to victory.

“This historic achievement by determined Iraqis will make America more secure,” he said.

Bush spoke hours after Iraq’s president designated Jawad al-Maliki to form the new government. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called him a patriot and “somebody with whom we can work,” even if he disagrees with the United States on certain issues.

The administration’s quick and high-profile response to the weekend’s political events in Iraq reflected the high stakes the situation poses for Bush. The administration sees the establishment of a permanent government in Iraq as an important step toward stabilizing the country and allowing for the drawdown of U.S. forces there.

“Formation of a new Iraqi government is an opportunity for America to open a new chapter in our partnership with the Iraqi people,” Bush said. “The United States and our coalition partners will work with the new Iraqi government to reassess our tactics, adjust our methods and strengthen our mutual efforts to achieve victory in this central front in the war on terror.”

Squabbling among Iraq’s political factions more than four months after national elections in December had weakened public approval in the U.S. for the war and fed the rising sectarian violence.

Bush’s approval rating is at the lowest point of his presidency, and the daily tide of bad news from Iraq – beheadings and suicide bombings, attacks on U.S. soldiers – is a chief reason.

Five U.S. soldiers were killed Saturday, including four whose vehicle hit a roadside bomb during a patrol in south Baghdad, the military said. Nearly 2,400 members of the U.S. military have died since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

Bush did not discuss al-Maliki directly in a brief statement to reporters after his helicopter landed in West Sacramento during a four-day trip through California.

He said the agreement that led to al-Maliki’s selection represented compromise, consensus and the will of the Iraqi people. Unlike the transitional and interim governments that came before, he said the new leadership will “have the popular mandate to address Iraq’s toughest long-term challenges.”

“The new government has a responsibility to deploy the growing strength of the Iraqi security forces to defeat the terrorists and insurgents and establish control over the militias,” Bush said.

“These are major challenges and the new Iraqi government will not face them alone. America is helping Iraq’s young democracy move forward.”

Al-Maliki, a consensus nominee for prime minister, opposed both Saddam Hussein and the invasion that toppled the dictator.

Shiite politicians chose al-Maliki to replace their previous nominee, interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a polarizing figure whom the United States opposed behind the scenes. Al-Maliki has strong ties to al-Jaafari, and the support of the political group led by firebrand anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Al-Maliki has 30 days to present his Cabinet to parliament for approval.

“He’s thought to be a strong figure, someone who is capable of getting things done,” Rice said. “He’s also thought to be someone who is very much an Iraqi patriot – very, very concerned about Iraq and Iraq’s sovereignty.”

Bush called Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, to discuss the developments in Iraq. The president also offered condolences about the four Canadian soldiers killed Saturday by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.

AP Diplomatic Writer Anne Gearan contributed to this story from Washington.

AP-ES-04-22-06 1829EDT

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