BAGHDAD, Iraq – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pressed for unity among Iraq’s religious factions as she made an unannounced and heavily guarded visit Friday to the country, including one of its most ethnically divided regions.
Rice made a personal appeal to Sunni Arabs to participate in new elections in December, but she sounded cool to an outside Arab attempt to foster political reconciliation. She also chided Iraq’s Arab neighbors for being slow to send ambassadors to post-Saddam Iraq.
“We do support the principles of democracy and support efforts to bridge the differences among Iraqis,” Rice said following a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
She also met behind closed doors in Baghdad with several prominent Sunni Arab leaders, including tribal leader and Vice President Ghazi al-Yawer.
Earlier, she met with Sunni and other leaders in the ethnically split northern city of Mosul, where Sunnis make up about 60 percent of the population.
Divisions “may be differences of history or tradition, culture or ethnicity, but in a democratic process these differences can be a strength rather than a handicap,” Rice said.
Sectarian and ethnic rivalries fuel the daily bloodshed in Iraq, and U.S. and Iraqi officials blame Sunnis for most of that violence. However, foreign fighters crossing into Iraq from Syria and elsewhere are apparently responsible for some of the deadliest suicide attacks.
Elections set for Dec. 15 for a permanent government are the latest test of Iraq’s new representative system – and another marker toward the day when U.S. forces and advisers may be able to leave the country.
The Bush administration has refused to set a timetable for withdrawing, even as the third anniversary of the ouster of Saddam Hussein approaches and U.S. public support for the war drops.
“We will continue to assist the Iraqi people as long as the Iraqi people need and want the support,” Rice said.
The secrecy and high security surrounding Rice’s one-day visit was a reminder that Iraq is a long way from being a safe place for diplomats or ordinary citizens. Her stop was not part of her announced itinerary for a Middle East trip this week that includes stops in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the West Bank.