By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 16, 2005
BAGHDAD, May 15 -- In a visit shrouded in secrecy, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spent Sunday in Iraq, encouraging its fledgling government to further incorporate the country's Sunni Muslim Arab minority into the political process to help slow a persistent insurgency.
In a brief interview after nearly 10 hours of high-level meetings here and in the northern region of Kurdistan, Rice also had strong words for Syria, which borders western Iraq, where nine U.S. Marines were killed last week while searching for what they described as foreign fighters who had crossed into the country to conduct attacks.
"There are very deep concerns about Iraq's neighbors," Rice said, referring to Syria and Iran, which borders eastern Iraq. "I heard particularly about Syria, about the gathering of terrorist networks there." Syria is "standing in the way of the Iraqi people's desire for peace if it continues to let its territory be used this way," she said.
Rice's visit was a welcome show of support for the new Iraqi government at a time of relentless insurgent violence here. More than 420 people, the vast majority of them Iraqi, have been killed since April 28, when Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari began announcing members of his cabinet.
The attacks continued Sunday. In Ramadi, west of Baghdad, the Iraqi army discovered the bodies of 10 of its soldiers apparently shot by insurgents, according to Lt. Jawad Abdul Hameed. At least 24 other bodies of slain Iraqis were found in Baghdad and Iskandariyah, south of the capital, where four of the victims had been beheaded, the Reuters news agency reported.
In the city of Baqubah, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, the governor of the Diyala province, Raad Rashid, survived an assassination attempt when a suicide car bomber attacked a convoy in which he was traveling. In separate incidents in Baghdad, gunmen assassinated an Industry Ministry official and a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a Shiite Muslim and Iraq's most influential spiritual leader, according to Sistani's office in Najaf.
Meanwhile, Raja Nawaf, the governor of Anbar province, who was kidnapped last week during the Marine offensive there, was released Sunday, the Interior Ministry said.
[Police reported Monday that the bodies of 12 Iraqi men, all of whom had been shot, were found in northeastern Baghdad, according to Reuters. The bodies had been found overnight, police said.]
U.S. and Iraqi officials say they believe the onslaught is intended to destabilize the Shiite-led government, which has struggled to incorporate Sunni Arabs, who largely boycotted Iraq's Jan. 30 elections, into the governing process.
After several Sunni nominees for cabinet posts refused to serve, all but one Sunni-designated seat is now filled. But a 55-member committee charged with drafting Iraq's constitution by Aug. 15 so far has just one Sunni Arab member. Laith Kubba, a spokesman for the prime minister, said at a news conference that the committee would be expanded to accommodate underrepresented groups. Sunnis, a minority in Iraq, filled most high-ranking positions in the government of former president Saddam Hussein and are widely believed to make up the bulk of the insurgency.
"We talked about how the political process should be inclusive -- and the government is an inclusive government -- and the need for the constitutional writing process to be inclusive," Rice said at a joint news conference held after a meeting with Jafari and some cabinet members in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, where U.S. diplomatic personnel and many of Iraq's government buildings are located.
"We are very keen to have the process be an inclusive process," Jafari said of the effort to forge a constitution. "We are trying to work very hard in order to remedy any shortcomings."
Asked how long U.S. troops might be present here, Rice said that although she was impressed with the progress Iraqi security forces have made, the United States would need to "help Iraq defend itself until it can defend itself."
"We talked about the need to accelerate the training and capacity of the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi armed forces," she said, noting that the recent spate of attacks showed the government was fighting a "very tough" opponent.
It was Rice's first trip to Baghdad since she accompanied President Bush on a similarly unannounced visit in 2003 for Thanksgiving. She had planned to visit the country in March, but was forced to cancel when word of the trip leaked, leaving her deeply disappointed, according to Jim Wilkinson, a senior adviser.
To preserve secrecy this time, only three members of the news media were permitted to accompany Rice: reporters for the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse wire services. They were told about the trip the day before they departed, they said, and were instructed to tell only their direct editors and bureau chiefs.
After Rice landed at Camp Doha, a U.S. base in Qatar, the flight crew that took her into Iraq did not know she was on board, Wilkinson said.
Rice traveled to the northern city of Irbil for a meeting with Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party.
She flew on to Baghdad, where she lunched with top U.S. generals, then addressed troops and embassy staff in the Green Zone before a series of meetings with Iraqi officials.
Among the officials was Ahmed Chalabi, a deputy prime minister, whose once-close relationship with the United States soured after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when intelligence that he and associates had provided about alleged Iraqi possession of weapons of mass destruction proved groundless.
At an evening news conference, Rice and Jafari both said the government must improve basic services such as electricity and other infrastructure. She expressed confidence that despite difficulty forging cooperation among Iraq's religious and ethnic groups, the government would meet the Aug. 15 deadline for the drafting of a constitution.
"Every time the Iraqi people have been presented with a deadline, they've met it," she said.
But she urged the world to be patient as Iraq struggles to improve its political and security climate.
"Iraq is emerging from a long national nightmare into freedom. It will take time to repair the damage that the previous regime has done," she said. "Things do not happen overnight."
A ceremony earlier Sunday, marking the opening of the new Iraqi army headquarters, appeared to illustrate the sometimes glacial pace of progress here. U.S. and Iraqi journalists were taken by helicopter to a ribbon-cutting for the building that will house commanders of all Iraqi ground forces.
But reporters were told they could not disclose its location, except to say that it is somewhere in Baghdad, and could not show pictures or reveal names of Iraqi military personnel present except for a commanding general, Abdul Qatar, for fear of assassination attempts.
"They are taking another step towards an independent Iraqi command," said the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. George Casey, who said the facility would be fully operational in six to 12 months.
The "operations room," which was full of chairs and desks but had only four computers, was named for Iraqi Brig. Gen. Ayad Imad Mahdi, who was killed by gunmen on his way to work Wednesday in Baghdad.
Later, in a series of interviews with U.S. and Arab news media, Rice warned Iraq's neighbors not to be disruptive.
"Iran is a neighbor. And I would hope that there will be good relations between Iran and Iraq," she said when asked by a CNN correspondent about Iran's close ties to Shiite leaders here.
"But they need to be transparent, neighborly relations, not relations that try somehow to have undue influence in the country through means that are not transparent," she said.
In an interview with two newspaper reporters, Rice had more-pointed words for Syria, urging its government to clamp down on terrorist activities and make a "full pullout" from Lebanon. Syria withdrew its last troops from Lebanon in April after a 30-year presence, but U.S., U.N. and European officials say it continues to maintain an intelligence presence there.
Rice said Syria should also stop supporting what she called "Palestinian rejectionists," a reference to residents of the West Bank and Gaza who oppose continued peace talks with Israel.
"Syrians need to take a look at where they are and get in step with the region," she said.
Special correspondents Omar Fekeiki, Bassam Sebti and Naseer Nouri contributed to this report.