Rice Makes Iraq Visit Ahead of Elections

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made an unannounced visit to Iraq Friday in an attempt to ease sectarian tensions before next month's elections. Rice's first stop was the northern, Sunni-dominated city of Mosul. Later, she headed for Baghdad to meet with senior government officials in the capital's Green Zone.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is visiting Iraq today. Her first stop was the northern Sunni-dominated city of Mosul. That's where she appealed to Iraqis to bridge their sectarian differences before next month's parliamentary elections. Later, Rice headed for Baghdad to meet with senior government officials in the capital's Green Zone; that's the heavily secured area where American officials stay. Traveling with the secretary of State is NPR's Corey Flintoff.

And, Corey, let's talk about this itinerary. Why stop first in a Sunni-dominated city?

COREY FLINTOFF reporting:

Well, particularly because she was inaugurating a new program for reconstruction projects. It's called the Provincial Reconstruction Team. And it's supposedly a way of integrating civilian workers into these small-scale reconstruction projects that the military has been doing. A colonel told us there that, of course, non-governmental organizations, relief organizations are wary about working with the military on these projects because they'll be seen by the insurgents as collaborating. The kinds of things that they'll be doing are water and sewer and electrification, the kind of things that one official called retail level services, the sorts of things that make people happy when they get them and very angry when they don't get them.

INSKEEP: And this is a city that was seen as a model for reconstruction at the beginning, but has become more violent over time.

FLINTOFF: It was. And officials say now that over the past year, it has once again--the balance has shifted a little bit. The Iraqi police are better trained and the police are a Sunni-dominated organization, whereas the army is primarily Shiite and Kurdish, and there's a balance there that's made it possible to get the level of violence down a little, and they feel that they can now start doing some building.

INSKEEP: Corey, what's the main reason that Secretary of State Rice went to Iraq at this moment?

FLINTOFF: Well, I think the main reason is probably to encourage Sunnis to get involved in the political process. She's meeting with Sunni leaders this afternoon at the embassy here in Baghdad. And she made that plea as well in Mosul. So she is anxious to broaden Sunni participation, but she is also interested in this reconstruction business because it's part of the Bush administration's strategy of clearing out rebels holding territory with Iraqi troops and starting rebuilding projects that are supposed to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.

INSKEEP: Corey, when you talk to the people around Secretary of State Rice and she tries to make progress on this critical, critical issue of getting Sunnis to participate in the government rather than back the insurgency, are officials confident that she's talking to the right Sunnis, that she's able to get in contact with people that can actually influence events?

FLINTOFF: Well, the embassy is hoping at least that it's bringing on more Sunni leaders. There's been a shift, of course, since the referendum that passed the constitution; there's been indications from Sunni leaders that they want to participate, that at this point they see that as their best means of getting a place in the government. So the embassy is hoping that it is bringing in Sunni leaders who'll have enough influence to bring the bulk of the population along with them.

INSKEEP: And we should mention you're now in Baghdad where there's been a sudden increase in violence.

FLINTOFF: Right, exactly. Car bombings yesterday and today, and we don't know at this point whether this is sort of a trend to the run-up to parliamentary elections, but certainly it's a worrying thing, especially when violence had seemed to ebb a little bit.

INSKEEP: NPR's Corey Flintoff is traveling with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Iraq. Corey, thanks.

FLINTOFF: Thank you, Steve.

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