- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2008

BAGHDAD (AP) — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised the Iraqi government today for government-led assaults on radical militias, as the top U.S. diplomat visited Baghdad in a show of support for the country’s leaders.

The Iraqi government “has made a choice to pursue militias and is willing to bear the consequences,” Rice said after her discussions.

She said there is “tremendous political opportunity here. They have to seize it.”

Rice met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, his Kurdish president and other top officials. She was also honoring Americans killed in the Green Zone, the heavily protected compound that houses the U.S. embassy and much of the Iraqi central government.

During his meeting with Rice, al-Maliki said the government assaults in the southern city of Basra represent a strong blow to all lawbreakers, showing the determination to confront the militias, according to a press release by the prime minister’s office.

President Jalal Talabani told Rice, “We are living in the Iraqi political spring.”

In the northern part of Iraq, U.S. and Iraqi troops have stepped up security operations in Mosul, believed to be one of the last urban strongholds of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Al-Maliki told Rice that government forces are preparing to finish the battle against the terrorists in Mosul in the coming days, according to the press release by the prime minister’s office.

Rice’s brief heavily guarded stop was not announced in advance, in keeping with security precautions adopted by all top U.S. officials who remain targets of the anti-American insurgents five years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Rice told reporters she sees signs that al-Maliki’s assaults on militia forces last month have brought sectarian and ethnic groups together in an unprecedented way. She said she wants to capitalize on that cohesion.

Rice traveled to Iraq, she said, to promote new Sunni and Kurd support for the U.S. backed Shi’ite government.

Rice and al-Maliki had a private meeting, along with the top U.S. ground commander, Gen. David Petraeus, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

Earlier at the U.S. embassy, Rice said she realizes it has been a difficult few weeks in the Green Zone, which itself has been under attack.

“It’s been a long five years. There’s no doubt about that,” said Rice.

During five days of heavy fighting last month, Iraqi troops struggled against militiamen, particularly the Mahdi Army loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The ill-prepared Iraqi military was plagued by desertions and poor organization and U.S. troops had to take over in some instances. The offensive was inconclusive, with Iran helping mediate a truce.

Still, the crackdown appears to have succeeded in giving some sense of central government control in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city and the emergence of a common cause could help bridge Iraq’s political rifts.

The head of the Kurdish self-ruled region, Massoud Barzani, has offered Kurdish troops to help fight al-Sadr’s militia.

More significantly, Sunni Arab Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi signed off on a statement by Talabani, a Kurd, and the Shi’ite vice president, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, expressing support for the crackdown in the oil-rich city of Basra.

Al-Hashemi is one of al-Maliki’s most bitter critics and the two have been locked in an acrimonious public quarrel for a year. Al-Hashemi has accused the prime minister of sectarian favoritism and al-Maliki has complained that the Sunni vice president is blocking key legislation.

Sunnis are looking for concessions from al-Maliki, whom they accuse of monopolizing power. Some leaders among both Sunnis and Shi’ites suspect al-Maliki’s real aim in launching the Basra operation was to weaken Shi’ite opponents ahead of provincial elections this fall.

Al-Sadr gave what he called a “final warning” to the al-Maliki government yesterday to halt a U.S.-Iraqi crackdown against his followers or he would declare “open war until liberation.”

Asked about al-Sadr’s statements of all-out war, Rice told reporters that he appears to be content to let supporters do the fighting “while he sits in Iran.”

“I guess it’s all-out war for anybody but him,” she said.

A full-blown uprising by al-Sadr, who led two rebellions against U.S.-led forces in 2004, could lead to a dramatic increase in violence in Iraq at a time when the Sunni extremist group al-Qaeda in Iraq appears poised for new attacks after suffering severe blows last year.

Earlier, Rice told reporters it has been difficult to determine al-Sadr’s motives, adding that the fate of his political movement would be a matter for the Iraqis to decide.

The U.S. would not object, she said, if his political forces take part in upcoming elections this fall, so long as they do so responsibly.

“There are those who questioned whether or not the prime minister was prepared to go after militias that were associated one way or another with political elements in his coalition … and there have been questions from the Arab states,” Rice said. “I think he’s answering that question.”

“This is a complicated process, but it is a process that has begun in Iraq,” Rice said. “It’s not been the smoothest of processes, but it is an important step that the Iraqi government has taken.”

Rice left Washington yesterday for the region. She will also meet Persian Gulf diplomats in Bahrain, and a wider group of Arab states and others in Kuwait.

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