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Visit by Rumsfeld, Rice Sets Off Criticism in Iraq

Some leaders worry that the Americans' surprise trip could hurt talks on forming a government. Analysts see an effort to shore up U.S. opinion.

April 27, 2006|Louise Roug and Paul Richter | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld paid a surprise visit to Baghdad on Wednesday to express support for Iraq's new leaders, but drew criticism from Iraqi politicians who said they feared the unannounced visit might do more harm than good.

"We didn't invite them," said Kamal Saadi, a Shiite legislator close to the new prime minister-designate, Nouri Maliki.

Saadi said Iraqi leaders had not been given advance notice of the visit, which came just days after Iraqi politicians broke through a months-long impasse on the selection of a prime minister.

"Maybe Rumsfeld's visit can be justified" because of American troop presence, "but I can't see a clear reason behind Rice's visit," Saadi said. "The crisis is over and negotiations are taking place."

Since parliamentary elections in December, American officials have pushed Iraqi legislators to form a national unity government. During the nearly four-month delay, the country has been rocked by violence with increasingly sectarian overtones, raising the specter of full-blown civil war.

Iraq's Shiite coalition broke the deadlock last week when it withdrew the nomination of interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari to lead the new government and substituted Maliki, whose nomination was approved Saturday by parliament. (Maliki said this week he was reverting to his original first name, Nouri. He said he had adopted the name Jawad during his time in exile, to protect his family in Iraq.)

During a news conference with Rumsfeld, Rice said that Maliki and others had made it clear in meetings that "Iraqis are taking responsibility for their own future."

"We can be partners. We can support. We can help. But this is Iraq's time and the time for Iraq's newly elected leaders to take on these responsibilities."

Some observers and Iraqi politicians speculated that the visit had more to do with the U.S. domestic audience than the creation of an inclusive and sustainable government in Iraq.

In Washington, the visit was seen as an attempt by the White House to shore up U.S. public opinion about the war and as the first foreign policy calling card of the new chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten.

"I actually think it's completely aimed at American public opinion," said Brian Katulis, Middle East analyst at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. "What's going on here is part of Bolten's plan to signal to the American public that we're not staying there forever."

Ivo H. Daalder, a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, said the visit was "all about us."

"We are trying to demonstrate that there is positive direction. How better to do that than having the chief horses of the State Department and the Defense Department make this joint and dramatic appearance. Every newspaper will quote them as saying this is a new turning point."

Lee Feinstein, a senior fellow with the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington, saw nuances in the White House mission.

"This is an opportunity for Secretary Rice to greet the new prime minister after criticizing Jafari very pointedly in her last visit just three weeks ago," he said.

In an unusual public display of divisions within the administration, Rice and Rumsfeld traded barbs this month over post-invasion mistakes in Iraq. On Wednesday, Rice sent a more harmonious message about State Department-Pentagon relations.

"We're working very hard together," she said. "We're actually having a great time here in Iraq. I think it's very stimulating for us both to be in these meetings with Iraq's leaders together."

Some Iraqi politicians thought the visit could backfire on the sensitive negotiations. Similar concerns were raised recently about the statements and actions of U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and about Rice's April 2 visit with her British counterpart, Jack Straw.

"It would be more appropriate if they would leave us alone," said Mahmoud Othman, a senior Kurdish legislator. "Let us solve our problems by ourselves."

"Enough is enough," said Sheik Mahmoud Sudani, a politician affiliated with radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr. "Rice's trip to Iraq at this critical time is just another desperate move by the Americans to try to impose themselves on our new government. But they have lost their influence."

There has been grumbling among some Iraqi officials as U.S. officials pressed them to form a new government and eventually urged Jafari to step aside in the face of opposition from Sunni Arabs, Kurds and secular Shiite Muslims.

The most positive reaction to the visits was among Sunni leaders, who fear their minority will lose political clout in the democratic setup.

Americans can help coordinate and speed the process, "which will benefit everyone," said Azhar Samarrai, a Sunni legislator with the Iraqi Islamic Party.

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