Rice in Iraq to encourage shaping of its government

Unannounced visit stresses the need for a new national order

October 06, 2006|By Paul Richter and Kim Murphy

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived here on an unannounced visit yesterday to urge on Iraq's skittish government as it seeks to restore security and shape a new national order.

Rice, in the midst of a weeklong Middle East tour, said she hopes to accelerate Iraqi officials' efforts to craft agreements on key national issues, which she said cannot be put off any longer amid raging sectarian fighting.

She told reporters on her plane en route to Iraq that U.S. officials intended to "support all the parties and, indeed, to press [them] to work toward a resolution quickly. ... The security situation is not one that can be tolerated. ... It is not helped by political inaction. That's a message that Prime Minister [Nouri] al-Maliki is trying to send."

U.S. officials have been impatient to have al-Maliki begin making the tough decisions facing the government. Since he was chosen during the spring to head the first permanent Iraqi government, al-Maliki has faced resistance from feuding factions. This week, the government moved to suppress sectarian violence by suspending a police brigade of up to 1,200 men suspected of complicity in recent violence against Sunnis.

Meanwhile, it is trying to figure out how to divide up the nation's oil wealth, demobilize Shiite militias, reform the nation's fledgling constitution and work out how to deal with former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party.

Rice praised the Iraqi government's move to suspend the police brigade as a "very positive thing," and said the government is "really starting to take action." She called al-Maliki a "very good and strong prime minister," and said he shared her "sense of urgency" about the need for action.

It was a day of sporadic violence in Iraq, with no reported U.S. casualties, but a series of attacks on Iraqi police and civilians left at least 26 dead. In addition, more than 30 corpses were found in various parts of Baghdad, most likely victims of sectarian violence, police said. In the southern city of Samawa, gunmen late Tuesday stormed a house and opened fire, killing two women and a 9-month-old. One of the women was beheaded, the other died of a head injury. The baby was also beheaded, police reported. And in southern Baghdad's crowded Zaafaraniya neighborhood, armed men burst into a tea shop and opened fire with automatic weapons, killing five men and injuring six others.

Early in the day, Iraqi authorities reported that a raid in the western Iraqi town of Haditha had likely resulted in the death of Abu Ayyub al-Masri, said to be the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq-but later denied it, saying the unidentified suspected insurgent was almost certainly not al-Masri.

"The person that was killed was another person. However, a sample of DNA was taken and it will be analyzed. The primary information we have indicates that was not the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq," said government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh.

U.S. Army spokesman Lt. Col Barry Johnson also said it was unlikely that al-Masri was killed in the raid. "There was a raid conducted against al-Qaida. At that time, we thought it was a possibility that he was among them. But as we did our initial analysis, we determined that it was highly unlikely that he was among those killed," he said.

U.S.-led forces have said for days they have been zeroing in on the top insurgency leadership, capturing two of al-Masri's top associates in September, including a man believed to be his former driver and personal assistant. U.S. military officials said they believe that the man, whose name was not released, participated in the 2005 bombing attacks at the Sheraton and al-Hamra hotels in Baghdad.

"We feel very comfortable that we're continuing to move forward very deliberately in an effort to find him and kill or capture him," Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV said of the hunt for al-Masri.

Spokesman Caldwell said more than 110 terrorists were killed in September and more than 520 detained in 164 operations. Fifty of the dead and 16 of those captured were from outside Iraq, Caldwell said.

"That is a significant upturn from the numbers that we had during the month of August," he added.

Paul Richter and Kim Murphy write for the Los Angeles Times.

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