Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise visit to Baghdad on Saturday and urged Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish politicians to use a lull in violence resulting from a new security plan to reach long-delayed agreement on key political issues.
Her visit came as the much-vaunted plan, called Operation Law and Order, was getting underway in Iraq’s capital. An Iraqi military spokesman said that attacks had already dropped significantly and that many fewer bodies were being brought to the morgue.
“How the Iraqis use the breathing space that [the plan] might provide is what’s really important,” Rice said during her half-day visit to Baghdad’s heavily protected Green Zone. Iraqi security forces were “off to a good start,” but it was still early, she said.
“There are going to be bad days for the Baghdad security plan, when violence is up -- not down,” she said. “The real test will be steering a steady course.”
Though Baghdad has appeared calmer, attackers have hit elsewhere. In Kirkuk on Saturday, bombers killed six people and wounded 75. High-ranking Iraqi military officials have recently noted a significant increase in attacks in and around Kirkuk.
Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens all want control of the city and the surrounding region. At stake are land, water and some of Iraq’s richest oil reserves.
In Baghdad, a crackdown that eventually will involve as many as 27,000 additional American and Iraqi troops began Wednesday. Despite opposition among the American public and in Congress to President Bush’s plans to send more troops to Iraq, at least 5,000 more U.S. and Iraqi troops have joined the thousands already patrolling the streets of the capital.
The U.S. House on Friday passed a nonbinding resolution opposing Bush’s plan to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq. Republicans blocked an effort to pass an identical resolution Saturday in the Senate.
Brig. Gen. Qassim Musawi, an Iraqi military spokesman, said that violence and crime in Baghdad had decreased by more than 80% and that at least 144 people had been detained in sweeps over the last three days.
A statement from Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s office said the plan also had resulted in the return of 107 displaced families to their homes. As many as 50,000 Iraqis are forced from their homes every month, joining 3.8 million others who have sought refuge elsewhere in the country or in neighboring states, according to the United Nations.
On Saturday, Rice met with Maliki, a Shiite; President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd; Vice President Tariq Hashimi, a Sunni; and others.
Iraq’s religious and ethnic groups have been unable to agree on one of the most fundamental issues: how to share the country’s oil resources. Lawmakers also have bickered over how to deal with onetime members of former President Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.
“I’m told that the oil law is almost complete.” Rice said. “I did say to my colleagues that I’ve heard it’s almost complete before, and this time I hope it really is complete ... because people are looking to see some elements of national reconciliation put into place. It’s really critical.”
Rice said U.S. commanders have told her that troop strength among Iraqi units in the Baghdad operation is as high as 90%. Initial reports had put them at about 50%.
But she reiterated that political progress would have to accompany any military advances.
“We’ve got to be sure not just to concentrate on the security plan.... The political side does need to keep pace.”
Because of military action on the ground, Rice’s plane circled above the city for half an hour before landing, according to the Associated Press.
In a 10-minute address in the Green Zone, Rice urged hundreds of American troops and U.S. Embassy staff members to be patient, saying they were engaged in a “noble cause.”
“When you see Iraqis toiling and squabbling and struggling,” she said, “remember it’s not easy to build a democracy.”
But she also said the Bush administration didn’t have unlimited patience.
“The United States is investing a great deal, most especially the lives of our men and women in uniform, and the American people want to see results and aren’t prepared to wait forever,” she said.
After meeting with Iraqi politicians and Western journalists, Rice flew by helicopter from the Green Zone to another U.S. military base, where she met Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the new commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.
Iraqi authorities said Saturday that they had recovered five bodies in a Baghdad neighborhood just west of the Tigris River, significantly fewer than usual.
But bombers and gunmen attacked elsewhere in the country. The double car bombing in Kirkuk that killed six hit a marketplace in a predominantly Kurdish part of town.
The explosions ripped through residences and storefronts, setting fire to at least a dozen cars. A woman picked through the debris after the explosion, crying and screaming as she looked for her 12-year-old son.
Azad Mustafa, 28, said the explosion knocked him over as he stood in his shop.
“The scene was like doomsday,” he said, “torn bodies everywhere, injured people screaming, burning cars.”
The U.S. military said a Marine was killed Friday during combat in Al Anbar province, bringing the number of U.S. deaths in Iraq to at least 3,133, according to icasualties.org, a website that tracks military casualties.
In Kut, gunmen shot an Iraqi police officer in front of his house.
In Hillah, police recovered two bodies.
A special correspondent in Kirkuk contributed to this report.