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Rice Makes Surprise Visit to Baghdad

Times Staff Writers

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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

Caldwell, spokesman for the U.S.-led multinational force, said more than 110 suspected terrorists had been killed in September and that more than 520 had been detained in the course of 164 operations. Fifty of the dead and 16 of those captured were from outside Iraq, he said.

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“That is a significant upturn from the numbers that we had during the month of August,” he said.

On her visit to the capital, Rice met with Maliki, President Jalal Talabani, Sunni Arab members of the government and leaders of the largest Shiite party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Among the latter was Abdelaziz Hakim, leader of the council.

In a statement after the meeting, the prime minister’s office said he had “affirmed the government’s will to confront the terrorists with all its strength, by developing the abilities of the security and military apparatuses.”

Maliki also asserted the government’s willingness to “contain the militias” and that “only the government should be holding weapons,” the statement said.

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The day was not without complications. The C-17 military cargo plane carrying Rice’s party circled the airport for about 45 minutes because of insurgent mortar or rocket fire near the facility. Then, when Rice met with Talabani, an unexplained loss of power darkened the room for several minutes.

Rice arrived in Iraq at a difficult moment. Twenty-two U.S. troops, an unusually high number, have been killed since Sunday.

On the charged issue of reconciliation, Rice said the United States would not try to impose its views. The issue “is a matter for the Iraqis to decide,” she said. But she also said that “obviously, there are some people who are still terrorists and are always going to be terrorists.”

In her comments to reporters, Rice defended President Bush against the charge, laid out in journalist Bob Woodward’s book “State of Denial,” that the administration has consistently misled the country about Iraq since 2002.

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Rice insisted that Bush “has been painting a very complex picture of Iraq for a long time.”

Bush has told Americans in frequent speeches, she said, that “it’s very tough going” because Iraq is trying to build a new order in a land with a history of tyranny and deep-rooted sectarian frictions.

On another subject, State Department officials said Rice would fly to London today to meet with her counterparts from the five countries with which the U.S. has been holding discussions on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The group -- France, Germany, Britain, Russia, China and the U.S. -- has been awaiting the outcome of efforts by Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, to persuade Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program.

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Solana, who has concluded that Tehran will not budge, is to brief the assembled ministers one more time, Rice said. “The issue is to hear from Solana and to move ... most likely to sanctions,” she said.

Rice left Israel for Iraq on Thursday morning after talks with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Amir Peretz.

In a statement after the talks, the State Department said U.S. officials had reached agreement with the Israelis to open the important Rafah crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip “at regular intervals.” The statement offered no further specifics on the accord, however.

paul.richter@latimes.com

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kim.murphy@latimes.com

Times staff writers Peter Spiegel in Washington and Borzou Daragahi in Baghdad and special correspondents in Baghdad and Samawah contributed to this report.


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