Rice Praises 'Coalescing Center' in Iraqi Politics

By Karen DeYoung and Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 21, 2008

BAGHDAD, April 20 -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made an unannounced visit here Sunday to promote what she called the "coalescing center" of Iraqi politics around the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The visit followed a night of intense fighting in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad after radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on Saturday threatened to wage a full-scale war against the U.S.-backed Iraqi government.

The fighting continued during Rice's visit. A ceremony at which she unveiled a plaque commemorating civilian deaths in the Green Zone was briefly delayed by a "duck and cover" alert, one of several during her six-hour visit to the fortified compound housing the U.S. Embassy and much of the Iraqi government.

The first of three rocket attacks occurred while she was meeting with Maliki at his office. In the second attack, as she returned to the Green Zone from a meeting with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a rocket struck in an area between the embassy and the main U.S. dining facility. A U.S. official said two people were injured.

The third attack came as Rice was completing a tour of the tactical operations center in the embassy on her way to the ceremony. Those waiting for her to appear took shelter in hallways until the all-clear was sounded, while Rice stayed in the operations center and watched tracking screens indicating the rocket's launch site in Sadr City and its trajectory.

The Green Zone has come under steady bombardment from Sadr City, home to Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, since U.S. and Iraqi troops began moving into the area several weeks ago.

Abu Zainad, a spokesman for Sadr in Sadr City, said U.S. helicopters hovered over the area all night. In recent weeks, U.S. forces have been dropping Hellfire missiles and low-yield bombs in eastern Baghdad targeting fighters firing rockets.

Few helicopters were flying Sunday, however, as dust hung over the city. U.S. air operations have been sporadically hindered over the past week as severe dust storms have swept through the area. Visibility was so poor during Rice's visit that security officials cancelled plans to fly into the city from a U.S. military airfield and instead made the trip by road convoy.

Responding to Sadr's threat, Rice said: "I don't know whether to take him seriously or not." She noted that Sadr has taken up residence in Iran, while "his followers can go to their deaths" in Iraq.

Repeating what she and several Bush administration officials have said in recent weeks, Rice said she recognized that the "Sadr trend" is a political movement as well as a militia. The administration is hoping that military pressure will quell militia actions and persuade nonviolent Sadrists to participate in provincial elections scheduled for October.

"Any Iraqi who's willing to lay down their arms and come into the political process and contest in the arena is welcome to do so," she said. "That would include the Sadrist trend."

The fighting in Sadr City began after a crackdown in late March by Iraqi security forces against what Maliki called militia "outlaws and criminals" in the southern city of Basra. Anger over the situation in Basra led to an eruption of fighting in Sadr City. Iraqi and U.S. forces have erected walls to close off the southern end of the enclave where most of the rockets are launched.

"The prime minister, the Iraqi government and the broad political leadership, since the Basra and Baghdad events that began last month, have been unified in their view that the time has come for an end to militia presence," said Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, who accompanied Rice. "We heard that again today from the whole leadership spectrum."

"How this will proceed, I can't predict," he said. "The Iraqis are in the lead on this."

Rice told reporters aboard her aircraft last night that "we've seen the coalescing of a center" in Iraqi politics. "The Sunni leadership, the Kurdish leadership and elements of the Shia are working together better than at any time," she said.

Both Maliki and Talabani said they agreed with her. Talabani, a Kurd, told reporters after their meeting that "we are living in the Iraqi political spring."

Rice said the crackdown will be accompanied by a $350 million Iraqi government aid package concentrated in Basra and Sadr City.

"I think they understand . . . that when the government reestablishes control, they need to reach out with reconstruction assistance, economic assistance to their own people," Rice said. Such aid, she added, is "classic counterinsurgency."

Rice detoured to Baghdad on her way to meetings with regional governments in Bahrain and Kuwait, where she hopes to press Iraq's Arab neighbors to increase diplomatic and economic support for Iraq.

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