BAGHDAD (AP) — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Iraqi leaders Saturday on an unannounced visit and said a new security crackdown in a capital weary of violence may provide an incentive for political progress.
The coordinated U.S.-Iraq sweep against militant factions is bringing “a new hope and a new optimism” to Baghdad, said Rice, the highest-ranking American official to visit Iraq since the campaign was announced last month.
But, she added, it was too soon to know whether the operation would work. She did praise the Baghdad government for ably promoting the crackdown to the Iraqi people and said Iraqi forces seem to be participating in adequate numbers.
In the region for a previously scheduled trip to see Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the Bush administration’s chief diplomat acknowledged concerns at home about efforts to bring democracy to post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.
The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday delivered a symbolic blow to President Bush’s strategy to turn around an unpopular war and the U.S. Senate planned a rare Saturday session to consider his troop buildup.
“Some of the debate in Washington is in fact indicative of the concerns that some of the American people have for the prospects of success if the Iraqi government doesn’t do what it has said it will do,” Rice told reporters after meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and others in his government.
In meetings with Iraq’s fragile and often divided U.S.-backed government, Rice stressed the need for political and economic progress alongside security gains.
Rice said she hopes the security sweep “may have now a little bit of a spur to some other things as well.”
The U.S. has urged the government to move more quickly on benchmarks such as a national law governing the distribution of oil wealth. Iraqi leaders informed her that the oil deal was almost done, but Rice later told reporters she has heard that before. The secretary said she made clear to Iraqi officials that she hopes this time it is for real.
“The oil law is a proxy for something much larger,” Rice said.
Initial reports had placed the Iraqi participation at 45% to 55% of full troop strength in the crackdown. Rice said there were technical explanations for some Iraqi absences and that commanders have told her that Iraqi participation is now as high as 90%.
She also said the government is meeting a test she had set for its commitment to the plan by ensuring that the rules of engagement for the joint forces are equitable and non-sectarian.
Iraq has missed its own target dates for making crucial trust-building measures, such as laws establishing provincial elections, equitably distributing the country’s oil wealth and reversing prohibitions on government participation by many Sunnis because of membership in Saddam’s Baath party.
Rice’s visit was intended as a firsthand look at the efforts to clamp down on the violent reprisals between Sunnis and Shiites. The attacks have seized Baghdad and contributed to the exodus of an estimated 3.8 million Iraqis from their homes.
Insurgent violence remains a concern. Rice’s plane circled the airport for 30 minutes before landing because of military action in the city.
“If in fact militias decide to stand down and stop killing innocent Iraqis … that can’t be a bad thing,” Rice told reporters traveling with her. “But how the Iraqis use the breathing space that that might provide is what’s really important.”
Rice also spoke with American troops and U.S. embassy workers, telling them their work was worthwhile in helping Iraq and securing the safety of the United States.
“When you see Iraqis toiling and squabbling and struggling … remember it’s not easy to build a democracy,” Rice said.
The security sweep appeared to get off to a good start. The number of Iraqi civilians killed in Baghdad’s sectarian violence fell drastically Friday, and officials credited the security operation begun in force just days ago.
Ten bodies were reported by the morgue in the capital, compared with an average of 40 to 50 per day common in recent months.
New checkpoints have gone up around the city, creating long traffic jams as vehicles are searched. Iraqi tanks have pushed into areas where roaming gunmen and militant groups have ruled.
While the reduction in killings was a relief, U.S. officials sounded a note of caution. Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil, commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, said militias and insurgents have apparently decided to lie low at least during these early days of the crackdown.
But in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk a suicide car bomber rammed into a crowded market on Saturday moments after a booby-trapped vehicle exploded, killing at least nine people and injuring 60, the police said.