Condoleezza Rice visits Iraq

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise visit to Iraq Friday and urged its war-battered fractious communities to bridge their differences ahead of next month's elections. Insurgents who have vowed to derail the democratic process continued their attacks, with three Iraqi policemen killed and two wounded when gunmen aboard a minibus machine-gunned a checkpoint in Baquba north of Baghdad, police said.

The violence flared a day after suicide bombers struck a restaurant and an army recruiting station, killing 37 people, with the bloodiest attack claimed by the Al-Qaeda group led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Rice, kicking off a Middle East swing, flew in to from Bahrain under tight security on a military transport plane with a full entourage of officials and press for her second visit to Iraq as chief US diplomat.

She landed in the northern city of Mosul to confer with local leaders and US officials, and to show the flag in a 32-month-old conflict that is increasingly unpopular at home.

The visit came five weeks before elections for a permanent parliament for Iraq that will cap efforts to restore self-rule in the wake of the March 2003 invasion to oust Saddam Hussein. Faced with a raging insurgency that shows no sign of abating, Rice called on Iraq's majority Shiite Muslims, Kurds and minority Sunni Arabs to end their squabbling and work to unite the country.

"We do urge all parties and all potential candidates to reach out across sectarian lines to deal with any divisions, to try and have programs that make for a single Iraq," Rice told reporters accompanying her.

Rice, who last visited the country in May, said the goal was "an Iraq where everybody, all of the three major groups as well as minorities, feel fully protected and fully incorporated." Rice was to take her message back to Bahrain where she will meet Arab officials at a conference on regional democracy and to Saudi Arabia where she will hold strategic talks with a close US ally.

She said Iraq must be integrated fully into the Arab world and "obviously we want as much Sunni participation as possible in these next elections."

"The Saudis have a lot of contacts, tribal and other contacts, that I would hope they would use and would press the Sunnis to be involved in a constructive way.

The level of Sunni participation in the elections was an open question less than a month after the country's new constitution was approved in a referendum despite a strong "no" vote in Sunni communities.

Washington fears that marginalization of the Sunnis from the political process could fuel the insurgency and delay prospects for the withdrawal of the more than 140,000 American troops still in Iraq. Rice came to Iraq promoting the United States' "clear, hold and build" strategy that consists of clearing areas of insurgents and holding onto them while building up local institutions.

Mosul, one of the largest and most ethnically mixed cities in Iraq, is 50 percent Sunni and was a flashpoint of the insurgency until a concerted cleanout effort seven months ago, US officials said.

Rice was to witness the mobilization of the first Provincial Reconstruction Team for Iraq which combines US civilian and military resources for local projects along the lines of a similar operation launched in Afghanistan.

She said the murderous attacks on attorneys connected with the trial of Saddam on charges of crimes against humanity demonstrated the continuing destructive intent of the insurgents.

Meanwhile, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso said his country would likely maintain its historic deployment to Iraq for much of next year. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi must decide next month whether to extend its two-year deployment to Iraq, the first time since World War II that Japanese troops have been in a country at war.

The Asahi Shimbun newspaper, quoting unspecified sources, said Japan would pull its 600 troops from Iraq in September, which would give it enough time to ensure security after next month's general elections, reports Middle East Online. I.L.

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