- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 18, 2007

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Iraqi government leaders yesterday that the contentious debate in Washington over President Bush’s war strategy reflects U.S. doubts that democracy will prevail over violence.

“Some of the debate in Washington is in fact indicative of the concerns that some of the American people have … if the Iraqi government doesn’t do what it has said it will do,” Miss Rice said she told leaders from all of Iraq’s factions.

Miss Rice made an unannounced visit to Baghdad as the U.S. Senate debated whether it would repeat a symbolic rebuke that the U.S. House handed Mr. Bush on Friday when it opposed the administration’s deployment of additional combat troops to Iraq. Senate Republicans thwarted the move with a filibuster.

Although Miss Rice used her visit to publicly praise the Iraqi government’s role in a new security crackdown in Baghdad, an Iraqi official said she was more critical in private.

Miss Rice told Iraqi leaders that the Baghdad security operation needs to “rise above sectarianism” and noted that no U.S. or Iraqi forces have yet moved into the capital’s major Shi’ite militia stronghold, the Iraqi official said.

The official said Miss Rice told Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that the initial stage of the crackdown, which began Wednesday, appeared to focus on Sunni areas and had left Sadr City, stronghold of the Mahdi Army militia, nearly untouched.

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to release the information to the media.

He said Miss Rice stopped short of accusing the Iraqis of displaying pro-Shi’ite bias in the operation and said it appeared that the crackdown was going well.

Stakes are high for the plan to bring down violence in Baghdad, both to encourage Iraqis to trust their government and police and to demonstrate progress to an American public increasingly fed up with the war.

“The United States is investing a great deal, most especially the lives of our men and women in uniform, and the American people want to see results and aren’t prepared to wait forever to see those results,” Miss Rice told reporters.

Although reports from the first day or two of the operation placed Iraqi force participation at 45 percent to 55 percent of full strength, Miss Rice said commanders have told her that Iraqi participation is now as high as 85 percent to 90 percent.

She said the Iraqi government is meeting a test she had set for its commitment to the plan by ensuring that the rules of engagement for the joint forces are equitable and nonsectarian. She said Iraqi leaders are also ably describing and defending the plan to Iraqis.

Miss Rice is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Iraq since last month’s announcement of the security campaign. Her stop, coinciding with the congressional debate, appeared to reflect a calculation by the administration that focusing on potentially promising developments in Iraq was the best response to the congressional voting.

Violence in Baghdad has dropped off sharply since the military push began earlier last week. U.S. military planners, however, caution that any attempt to stabilize Baghdad could take months and militants are not likely to leave without a fight.

A twin bombing left 11 dead in northern Iraq and U.S. aircraft went in action yesterday against Sunni insurgents west of Baghdad.

The bombers struck in a Kurdish neighborhood of the oil city of Kirkuk, about 180 miles north of Baghdad, as streets were filled with cars and pedestrians.

Police and witnesses said the first blast occurred near shops and a bus depot. Minutes later, a suicide car bomber attacked the same area. Terrified shoppers fled screaming in panic amid burning cars and debris. A restaurant owner lay screaming on the sidewalk, his body soaked with hot cooking oil after one of the blasts hurled him onto the curb.

Eleven persons were killed in the two blasts and 65 were wounded, police Brig. Gen. Sarhat Qader said. Sunni Arabs and Kurds have laid rival claims on Kirkuk and its oil wealth.

In Ramadi, a Sunni insurgent hotbed 70 miles west of the capital, U.S. jets strafed gunmen after they ambushed a U.S. patrol, said 2nd Lt. Roger Hollenbeck, a Marine spokesman.

Hours later, U.S. aircraft destroyed a car with gunmen who were trying to escape after they attacked an Army patrol, Lt. Hollenbeck said.

Some U.S. officers think Sunni and Shi’ite extremists have fled Baghdad to avoid the crackdown, citing an increase in attacks in provinces that border the city.

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