- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 12, 2005

BAGHDAD — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pressed for unity among Iraq’s religious factions as she made an unannounced and heavily guarded visit yesterday to the country, including one of its most ethnically divided regions.

Miss 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,” Miss 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,” she 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 quit the country.

“We will continue to assist the Iraqi people as long as the Iraqi people need and want the support,” Miss Rice said.

Miss Rice’s stop in Iraq 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.

U.S. troops launched a major offensive last week against al Qaeda-led fighters near the border with Syria, an area the U.S. command describes as the major entry point for foreign Islamic extremists responsible for many of the suicide attacks.

The American command reported yesterday that a Marine was killed the day before in a roadside bombing in Karabilah, about 200 miles west of Baghdad.

Two U.S. Army soldiers were killed Thursday by small arms fire during combat operations in Khaldiyah, 55 miles west of Baghdad, the military said. Two other American soldiers died in a traffic accident northwest of Kirkuk.

The deaths brought the number of U.S. service members killed in Iraq since the war began in 2003 to 2,061, according to an Associated Press count.

In Baghdad, gunmen fired on the compound of the Embassy of Oman, killing two persons and wounding two others.

On Wednesday, a driver for the Sudanese Embassy was fatally shot in the same part of the capital.

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