Rice Makes Unannounced Visit to Iraq

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visits the Iraqi city of Kirkuk. The goal of her unannounced visit is to urge reconciliation among Kurds, Arabs and Turks in the oil-rich region 150 miles south of Baghdad.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Condoleezza Rice is making an unannounced visit to Iraq. Her first stop was Kirkuk. There, she urged reconciliation among Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen who share the oil-rich region that surrounds the northern city. Later, Rice flew to Baghdad in this, her eighth visit as secretary of state - a visit that has been somewhat overshadowed by a Turkish military incursion into northern Iraq. We go now to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who's in Baghdad. And why did Secretary Rice make Kirkuk her very first stop?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Well, I'm not sure about the sequence why that occurred, but certainly, the importance the Kirkuk is - cannot be denied. We're talking about a city that many refer to as Iraq's Jerusalem, where you have Arabs and Kurds and Turkmen who are all vying for control of this city, because it lies in an oil-rich area. The Arabs fear that if the Kurds take this, that it's going bolster their claim or desire for an autonomous region, and also the neighbors of Iraq are concerned about this, that this is going to fuel their own Kurdish separatist movements in their countries. So she went up there to sort of highlight the need for reconciliation, and also to point to some of the progress that's gone on in terms of reduction in violence, and smaller steps in terms of agreements between the Arabs and the Kurds up there.

MONTAGNE: What more can you tell us about this visit, generally?

NELSON: Well, she's here at a time where political progress has sort of stagnated. We have the parliament in recess at the moment because of Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia to the holy cites of Mecca and Medina, and various holidays, including Christmas and (unintelligible) that are going on. And there's a great sense of urgency that now that the violence is, in fact, down to levels that we haven't seen in two and half years, that there needs to be political progress on national reconciliation, on dividing up oil revenues and in other areas to really bring governance and services back to the people.

MONTAGNE: Well, given that security has improved in, as you've said, in recent months, why has there been so little political progress, given Iraqis are enjoying a rather - for their context - a low level of violence?

NELSON: Well, a lot of the disagreements and the hatred remains. I mean, there's the - everyone's jockeying for political power here. The Shiite-dominated government is not necessarily well received by Sunni Arabs or Kurds or the Turkmen. Everybody wants to have their say here in Iraq. And so, even though the violence has gone down, as we said earlier, that the political will just isn't there yet.

MONTAGNE: And Soraya, we're following reports today about Turkish troops moving into northern Iraq, and that follows a bombing campaign against Kurdish rebel hideouts that began this last weekend. What can you tell us about that?

NELSON: This seems to be part of a continuing campaign to get rid of Kurdish rebels in the north who are causing problems for Turkey on the other side of the border. And so what we've heard thus far is that 300 Turkish troops have, in fact, crossed the border in northern Iraq near the city of Irbil, and that they are looking for rebels. And it's unclear if they are casualties or anything at this point. But this is obviously going to cause a lot of heartache here for Iraqi government officials, and it certainly overshadows the visit today by Secretary Rice.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, speaking from Baghdad.

NELSON: You're welcome, Renee.

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Rice Visits Kirkuk as Turkish Army Stages Incursion

Condoleezza Rice and U.S. Ambassador  to Iraq Ryan Crocker meet with leaders in Kirkuk, Iraq. i i

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (right) and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker (second from right) meet with Kurdish, Sunni, Christian, Turkmen and Shiite community leaders in Kirkuk, Iraq, on Tuesday. Marwan Ibrahim/AFP/Getty hide caption

itoggle caption Marwan Ibrahim/AFP/Getty
Condoleezza Rice and U.S. Ambassador  to Iraq Ryan Crocker meet with leaders in Kirkuk, Iraq.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (right) and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker (second from right) meet with Kurdish, Sunni, Christian, Turkmen and Shiite community leaders in Kirkuk, Iraq, on Tuesday.

Marwan Ibrahim/AFP/Getty

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday paid an unexpected visit to Kirkuk, even as the Turkish army sent soldiers about 1.5 miles into northern Iraq in a hunt for Kurdish rebels.

Rice met with members of a civilian-military reconstruction unit and about two dozen provincial politicians of varying backgrounds, emphasizing the need for unity.

"It is an important province for the future of Iraq, for a democratic Iraq, an Iraq that can be for all people," she said at the start of the meeting with the provincial leaders.

Sunni Arabs ended a yearlong political boycott earlier this month in Kirkuk — the hub of Iraq's northern oil fields — under a deal that sets aside government posts for Arabs. It was the biggest step yet toward unity ahead of a referendum on the area's future.

U.N. Representative Arrives

Rice highlighted that development — although a separate ethnic group is still boycotting the provincial governing council — and the new role of the United Nations in resolving the future of disputed Kirkuk.

The U.N. representative, who arrived last month, is aiming to help manage competing interests leading up to the Kirkuk referendum, which is expected in late 2008. Iraq's constitution required the referendum by the end of this year.

Turkey and other countries in the region with Kurdish minorities have long feared that Kurdish control of Kirkuk's vast wealth would encourage Kurds to declare independence from Iraq — a move that Iraq's neighbors could not tolerate.

Kurds are generally thought to have a slight majority in the province, with Sunni Arabs close behind, though a census has not been conducted in 50 years. Provinces cannot schedule new elections until passage of a law known as the Provincial Powers Act, which is currently mired in Iraq's parliament.

Rice's visit was meant to underscore an overall reduction in violence that the Bush administration largely attributes to the escalation of U.S. forces he ordered a year ago.

Iraq Violence Decreases

Attacks in Iraq are at their lowest levels since the first year of the American invasion in 2003, finally opening a window for reconciliation among rival sects, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the No. 2 commander in Iraq, said Sunday.

The Turkish army's incursion into northern Iraq represents a new threat, however.

Turkish officials said troops must cross the border to pursue Kurdish rebels who use the border region to attack Turkey.

Turkey sent 300 troops into northern Iraq at about 3 a.m. Tuesday, said Jamal Abdullah, a spokesman for the regional Kurdistan government. He said the region was a deserted mountainous frontier area.

The Kurdish Workers' Party, or PKK, has battled for autonomy in southeastern Turkey for more than two decades and uses strongholds in northern Iraq for cross-border strikes.

It was unclear how long the Turkish soldiers who entered Iraq on Tuesday would stay, but a Turkish government official said they were sent as reinforcements to existing Turkish troops stationed farther inside Iraq.

About 1,200 Turkish military monitors have operated in northern Iraq since 1996 with permission from local authorities. A tank battalion has been stationed at a former airport at the border town of Bamerni and a few other military outposts were scattered in the region. Ankara rotates the troops there.

Asked about a reported clash between the Turkish troops and Kurdish rebels inside Iraq, Turkey's President Abdullah Gul said: "From now on, whatever is necessary in the struggle against terrorism, it is being done."

Turkish Incursion Poses Threat

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the incursion "is not acceptable and will lead to complicated problems."

"Iraq understands the threat the PKK represents, one that endangers Turkish security," al Dabbagh said. "But Iraq rejects any Turkish interference in Iraq."

Al-Dabbagh said the Iraqi government was given no warning about Tuesday's incursion.

Abdullah, the spokesman for the regional Kurdish government, also criticized the operation and cautioned that Turkish forces should be careful not to harm civilians who might be living in the area.

On Sunday, Turkey conducted airstrikes against PKK rebels in northern Iraq. As many as 50 fighter jets were involved in the attack, the biggest against the PKK in years.

An Iraqi official said the planes attacked several villages, killing one woman. The rebels said two civilians and five rebels died.

The Iraqi parliament on Monday condemned the bombing, calling it an "outrageous" violation of Iraq's sovereignty. Turkey said Sunday's attack used U.S. intelligence and was carried out with tacit U.S. approval.

Kirkuk is an especially coveted city for both the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurdish one in Irbil.

Kurds want to incorporate it into their self-rule area, but the idea has met stiff resistance from Arabs.

Much of Iraq's vast oil wealth lies under the ground in the region, as well as in the Shiite-controlled south. Apart from the petrodollars, Kurds have a strong cultural and emotional attachment to the area and consider Kirkuk, which they call "the Kurdish Jerusalem," part of their ancestral homeland.

Rice did not hold a separate meeting with the semiautonomous Kurdish leadership while in Kirkuk. Kurdish leaders have chafed under U.S. demands for greater inclusion in the Baghdad government and swifter work to complete a framework law for managing and distributing Iraq's oil wealth.

Kurdish leaders also favored a quicker referendum on Kirkuk and resented U.S. pressure this fall to do more to hunt the Kurdish rebels.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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