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Rice Makes Surprise Visit to Baghdad

The secretary of State says she hopes to help speed Iraqi officials' efforts to craft accords that could damp the raging sectarian strife.

October 06, 2006|Paul Richter and Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived here Thursday on an unannounced visit to urge on Iraq's skittish government as it seeks to restore security and shape a new national order.

Rice, on a weeklong visit to the Mideast and Europe, said she hoped to accelerate Iraqi officials' efforts to craft agreements on key national issues, which she said could not be put off any longer amid raging sectarian fighting.

She told reporters on her plane en route to Iraq that U.S. officials intended to "support all the parties and, indeed, to press [them] to work toward a resolution quickly.... The security situation is not one that can be tolerated.... It is not helped by political inaction. That's a message that Prime Minister [Nouri] al Maliki is trying to send."

U.S. officials have been impatient for Maliki to begin making the tough decisions confronting the government. Since he was chosen during the spring to head the first permanent Iraqi government, Maliki has faced resistance from feuding factions.

This week, the government moved to suppress sectarian violence by suspending a police brigade of as many as 1,200 men suspected of complicity in recent violence against Sunni Arabs.

Meanwhile, the government is trying to figure out how to divide the nation's oil wealth, demobilize Shiite Muslim militias, rework the country's new constitution and deal with former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.

Rice praised the suspension of the police brigade as a "very positive thing" and said the government was "really starting to take action." She called Maliki a "very good and strong prime minister," and said he shared her "sense of urgency" about the need for action.

Her efforts to spur Iraq's leaders into action came amid growing fear in Washington that Maliki has not been decisive enough in cracking down on warring sects, some of which are backed by officials in Iraqi ministries.

Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said Thursday that the U.S. should give Maliki two to three more months before considering a change in policy. His comments came after a trip to Iraq.

"It's hard to see this government beginning to seize the full reins of sovereignty, which we have given them," said Warner, who has long backed the Bush administration in the war. "You do not see them taking the levers of sovereignty and pulling and pushing them and doing what is necessary to bring about a situation in Iraq whereby the people are able to live."

Although Warner would not specify what changes he believed the U.S. should make if Maliki did not take stronger action, he said, "I wouldn't take off the table any option at this time."

Violence continued to rack Iraq, where a series of attacks on police and civilians Thursday left at least 26 people dead. More than 30 corpses, mostly the result of sectarian killings, were found in various parts of Baghdad, police said.

In the southern city of Samawah, gunmen late Wednesday stormed a house and opened fire, killing at least two women and a 9-month-old baby. One of the women and the baby were beheaded, police reported. And in south Baghdad's crowded Zafaraniya neighborhood, men burst into a tea shop Thursday and opened fire with automatic weapons, killing five men and injuring six.

Early in the day, Iraqi authorities reported that a raid in the western town of Haditha probably had resulted in the death of Abu Ayyub Masri, said to be the leader of the terrorist group Al Qaeda in Iraq -- but later denied it, saying the unidentified suspected insurgent was almost certainly not Masri.

"The person that was killed was another person. However, a sample of DNA was taken and it will be analyzed. The primary information we have indicates that he was not the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq," government spokesman Ali Dabbagh said.

U.S. Army spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Johnson also said it was unlikely that Masri was killed in the operation.

"There was a raid conducted against Al Qaeda," Johnson said. "At that time, we thought it was a possibility that he was amongst them. But as we did our initial analysis, we determined that it was highly unlikely that he was amongst those killed."

U.S.-led forces have said for days that they have been zeroing in on the top insurgency leadership, capturing two of Masri's top associates in September, including a man believed to be his former driver and personal assistant. American military officials said they believed that the man, whose name was not released, had participated in 2005 bomb attacks against the Ishtar and Hamra hotels in Baghdad.

"We feel very comfortable that we're continuing to move forward very deliberately in an effort to find him and kill or capture him," Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV said of the hunt for Masri.

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