U.S. Secretary of State Condolezza Rice paid a surprise visit to Iraq Friday, five weeks before that country holds critical parliamentary elections. Ms. Rice says she will urge Iraqi political leaders to work for a new government that spans the country's ethnic and religious divides.
Ms. Rice flew to Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, on a U.S. military plane from Bahrain on a visit unannounced in advance for security reasons.
She immediately began a round of meetings with local Iraqi officials as well as U.S. diplomats and military officers who were setting up new provincial reconstruction teams aimed at decentralizing U.S. rebuilding efforts now centered in Baghdad.
Mosul, with a Sunni Muslim majority but with a sizable population of ethnic Kurds, was considered a hotbed of insurgent activity as recently as last year, though U.S. officials say security has improved in recent months.
The surrounding province voted against the country's new constitution in last month's referendum, reflecting Sunni disaffection with a political system in which majority Shi'ites are ascendant.
In an airborne talk with reporters on route to the Middle East, Ms. Rice said she would convey the message that the United States does not support any particular candidates or party in the December election, but she said it does urge all parties and potential candidates to reach across sectarian lines to try to build a single Iraq where the country's three major groups, Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds, as well as minorities, are incorporated in the governing process and have their rights protected.
Ms. Rice also said she hopes the Iraqi government that the election will produce, replacing interim administrations, will focus on building competent ministries with professional cadres to be able to deal with an anticipated large flow of international aid.
The secretary is taking part in the launch of provincial reconstruction teams for the Mosul, Hilla and Kirkuk areas. U.S. officials say the concept, to be employed nationwide eventually, has been used with some success in Afghanistan in making U.S. aid programs more responsive to local needs.