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US Secretary of State Makes Surprise Visit to Iraq


U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise visit to Iraq to meet with government leaders and the United Nation's new special envoy. VOA's Deborah Block reports from Baghdad that Rice's visit coincides with a reduction in violence in Iraq.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Iraqi leaders to speed up national reconciliation.

Security in Iraq has improved due to the deployment of an extra 30,000 U.S. troops, a decision by Sunni Arab tribal leaders to move against al-Qaida, and a six-month ceasefire by Shi'ite cleric and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr.

The secretary of state said it is time to take advantage of the situation.

"The surge that the president ordered as well as the efforts of Iraqi security forces and the efforts of concerned citizens and local efforts like the one that took place in Anbar have improved the security situation and they have given a kind of window in which political reconciliation needs to take place," she said.

The government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki has been frozen by deep divisions and mistrust among the leaders of Iraq's different religious sects and ethnic groups. It has made little headway in passing laws seen as vital to reconciliation.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said the government will increase its political efforts.

"These gains are really very significant as we see them in the streets of Baghdad, in many provinces, this needs to be pressed on I think," he said. "We need a political and legislative surge, also you see, to augment and strengthen these gains. Also I reassured Secretary Rice about our continued effort to ensure a better regional cooperation."

Rice began her visit to Iraq in oil-rich Kirkuk, where the U.S. administration is emphasizing what it sees as new signs of cooperation and progress. But the city faces increasing violence, with Kurdish nationalists demanding it be included in their semi-autonomous region.

Rice also met with new U.N. Envoy to Iraq Steffan de Mistura, whose first task will be managing competing interests leading up to a on Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq.

At a joint news conference with Zebari, Rice suggested that Iraqi, Turkish and U.S. authorities should work together against the rebels.

"This is a circumstance in which the United States has constantly counseled that we need an overall, comprehensive approach to this problem," she said. "No one should do anything that threatens to destabilize the north."

The Iraqi government says the Turkish incursions are unacceptable. Foreign Minister Zebari said cooperation is needed to solve the rebel problem.

"We believe any unilateral actions to destabilize the situation will harm Iraqi interests and Turkey's interests," he said. "But at the same time we fully understand and appreciate the legitimate security concern Turkey has over the PKK terrorist activities against them."

This is Rice's eighth visit to Iraq as secretary of state and her first since she accompanied President Bush to Anbar Province after the troop surge began earlier this year.

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