Nouri al-Maliki said on Thursday he could decide by Friday on the two security ministries, which were not named last week along with the rest of his cabinet because of ethnic and sectarian disagreements. The two would then probably be sworn in on Sunday, when parliament reconvenes.

Separately, Iraq's deputy prime minister said on Thursday that the government planned to move quickly to restore security for Baghdad's more than five million residents - who have suffered the most from suicidal killers, roadside bombs and sectarian death squads.

"It is time for those who want to steal the smiles from the Iraqi people and turn its women into mourners to be silenced," said Salam Zikam Ali al-Zubaie, who is temporarily filling the defence post.

The chance that Iraq's key security ministries may be filled by the weekend came on a day that saw 13 killings, including the deaths of two US soldiers who were killed by a roadside bomb in southern Baghdad.

Although al-Zubaie, a Sunni Arab, did not provide details on al-Maliki's plans to restore security, the president, Jalal Talabani, said it would probably include a unified force formed from the best and most highly trained members of Iraq's armed forces and police.

Elite force

Talabani told Iraq's al-Furat TV: "We are forming a force to protect Baghdad by the best and trained elements in the interior and defence ministries. They will be under one leadership and under the direct supervision of the prime minister."

He said the troops would wear one uniform and "be the only authorised force to travel in Baghdad" as part of an effort to eliminate death squads and other armed groups who regularly roam the capital disguised as security forces.

The strategy so far has been for American and international troops to hand over security control for regions and redeploy to larger bases - where they could act in a support or reserve role.

Baghdad continues to be one of
the most violent cities in Iraq

A final stage, in the as yet undetermined future, would involve the drawdown of troops from those bases.

Speaking on Thursday in Baghdad, the Iraqi prime minister said: "We have a number of names for the interior and defence ministries and we will meet" on Friday "to decide".

Al-Maliki said problems included the large number of candidates for both posts presented by both his Shia United Iraqi Alliance and the Sunni Arab Accordance Front.

"The Alliance has six names for the interior ministry post and the Accordance Front has tens of names," al-Maliki said after meeting Talabani and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq - the country's largest Shia party.

According to al-Hakim, the inability to find an ideal candidate was delayed because of vetting and Alliance reservations over some nominees "because they had links with the former regime".

Blair-Bush talks

Meanwhile, in Washington DC, Tony Blair, the British prime minister, met George W Bush, the US president, on Thursday to discuss the future of  Iraq and to rally world support for the new government.

Blair, Bush's staunchest ally, was to brief the US leader on talks he held earlier this week with al-Maliki.

Al-Maliki wants Iraqi forces to
take charge within 18 months

The two men were also to discuss trade issues, Iran,  Afghanistan and the Middle East peace process.

The British prime minister's official spokesman said Blair would  emphasise "the need for the international community as a whole, including the United Nations, to get behind the democratically  elected government of Iraq and support it".

British officials have said most multinational soldiers could be withdrawn by 2010, but no timetable will be agreed upon during the talks.

Al-Maliki said in a television interview on Thursday that armed gangs are the main threat to Iraq's security, along with some charities in neighbouring countries that fund fighters.

"I do not think the problem is that of militias because the known militias can be dealt with and we can resolve this issue easily," Maliki said in an interview with Dubai-based news channel Al-Arabiya.

Gang threat

"But it is gangs, some born from the womb of militias and others made up of the criminals released by the previous regime. They are using terror as a business and as a means to settle scores," the Iraqi prime minister said.

"We must have a strategy to confront gangs, one way may be is to go back to those who have been released (from prison) to control them and monitor their movements."

Al-Maliki revealed some details of the plan to secure Baghdad,  discussed earlier in the day by al-Zubayi. "I have asked all forces to mobilise a plan that I have  christened 'the Baghdad plan'," he said.

Talabani (R) said the best trained
officers will protect Baghdad

"We will create specially trained units to secure Baghdad and its perimeter and to confront the ethnic cleansing that is taking  place in many areas around the capital."

Al-Maliki said one of the best ways to confront bomb attacks was to further develop the country's intelligence services.

"Our intelligence services will be able to go deep into the  sources of terror to confront it," he said

Asked if Iraq's neighbouring countries were still funding the  insurgency, al-Maliki said: "We can confirm that there are institutions and other forces in these countries that provide direct support under the guise of charitable committees."

He said it was the countries' obligation to control the activities of these organisations if they desired normal relations with Iraq.