By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 27, 2006
BAGHDAD, April 26 -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld made an unannounced joint visit to Iraq on Wednesday to bolster the emerging leadership and to suggest that the sometimes disjointed U.S. political and military operations are working seamlessly during the transition to a permanent government.
President Bush -- whose approval ratings have sunk to new lows, in large part because of the war -- secretly directed Rice and Rumsfeld to undertake the unusual mission as soon as the four-month impasse over the selection of Iraqi's prime minister ended last week, officials said. The visit came several weeks after the two secretaries had a public tiff over whether the Bush administration has made mistakes in Iraq.
U.S. officials indicated that they were embracing perhaps the last chance the Bush administration had to turn around public opinion at home and to ensure that Iraq has a viable political future. The administration had previously pointed to the drafting of a constitution and the election of a transitional government as watershed moments in Iraq, even as violence has continued to rage. The new government will last four years and administration officials say they expect it to become increasingly independent of U.S. influence.
Rice said the creation of a permanent government should be seen as a turning point in the war and "an important message to the American people" because "it gives Iraq a real chance to deal with the obviously vexing problems that it has faced."
Rice and Rumsfeld, who arrived separately, barely ventured outside the heavily fortified enclave known as the Green Zone. They spent much of the day in meetings with top Iraqi leaders, including the prime minister-designate, Nouri al-Maliki; Rice also held a second late-night one-on-one session with him. Maliki emerged as an unexpected compromise choice to lead Iraq for the next four years and was largely unknown to Washington officials.
During a dinner of Sayadieh fish and Arab salads with Iraqi leaders, Rice and Rumsfeld were briefed by Planning Minister Barham Salih on details for putting together the new government. He said that "success depends on our competency," one participant in the meeting said. Iraqi officials also told the visiting Americans that fixing the unstable security in the capital was a key objective.
Earlier, in a meeting at the residence of U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, Maliki, speaking in Arabic, told Rice and Rumsfeld that while terrorism was the major problem, his first goal was to address the "mistrust" among religious and ethnic groups, a U.S. official said. Resolving this issue would in turn help reduce the violence. His second priority was making electricity supplies reliable. Three years after the invasion, sporadic electricity continues to be a symbol for many Iraqis of the failure of the U.S. occupation. "The people need electricity," he said.
Maliki and the U.S. visitors also held a lengthy discussion on staffing for government ministries, with Maliki saying the ministers should be "ministers for Iraq," not ministers for Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs or Kurds. The Interior Ministry is believed to be infiltrated by Shiite militia groups that are targeting Sunnis, and Maliki said he was looking for technocrats who were competent.
"We wanted to say how important it was that the ministries would be ministries of national unity, just as the government is a government of national unity," Rice said later. "But before we could say that, the leaders said that to us."
Maliki's office announced Wednesday that he would begin to use his birth name, Nouri, rather than Jawad, which he adopted while in exile during Saddam Hussein's rule. He has a long career as a legislator but has never held an executive position. He does not even have a secretary, though he has promised the U.S. Embassy he would hire one this week.
Rice and Rumsfeld also presided over a working lunch of about 30 senior U.S. political and military officials that, in the spirit of a presidential campaign, was listed on Rice's itinerary as: "First 100 days: Government Formation, Security and non-Security Priorities." The lunch did not cover a specific 100-day plan but focused mainly on such issues as helping establish effective ministries.
The State Department and Pentagon earlier this year differed over how to provide security for reconstruction teams in Iraqi provinces, slowing the implementation of plans. The dispute was largely resolved this month, and Rice in recent days has cabled Foreign Service officers to say she has crafted a special incentive program to make tours on the teams more attractive.
"Clearly the new Iraqi government must perform on behalf of the Iraqi people," said Jim Wilkinson, Rice's senior adviser. "But the new government also gives us a chance to correct our mistakes and do our part to make Iraq work.
"This is an opportunity to be seized," he added. "The Iraqis must seize it, but the U.S. government must organize itself to help the Iraqis do so."
Rice, in a trip to Baghdad three weeks ago, personally pushed for transitional Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari to give up his nomination to a new term. During a meeting with him Wednesday, however, she and Rumsfeld were "very relaxed," according to Adnan Ali Kadhimi, a Jafari aide. Jafari "appreciated the visit, and he said that no matter what has happened, we still appreciate what America has done for us," Kadhimi said.
Rice and Rumsfeld made no public statements in their meetings with Iraqis, though they jointly met with Iraqi reporters traveling on their aircraft. Earlier this month, Rice said the administration had made possibly "thousands" of "tactical errors," prompting Rumsfeld to declare that anyone making such a statement did not understand the nature of warfare. In Baghdad, Rumsfeld minimized the dispute, saying he "wasn't aware of what she meant," while Rice told Fox News that she and Rumsfeld have "an excellent relationship."
Staff writer Nelson Hernandez contributed to this report.