U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a personal appeal Friday for Iraqis to bridge sectarian differences, venturing to a majority Sunni Arab region of the country to ask for cooperation in the coming election. "I want to talk about the importance of reaching across sectarian lines," Rice said on her unannounced visit to this northern Iraqi city, which is about 60 percent Sunni Arab.
Rice made the comments to reporters traveling with her to the region. The secretary arrived at a military airport and rode by helicopter to U.S. base, flying over sheep grazing next to the roofless shells of bombed-out buildings and houses.
Rice's trip, her second to Iraq as secretary of state, comes five weeks before elections for a permanent Iraqi government. Like initial elections last January and a constitution-writing exercise this summer, the new round of voting is a marker of Iraq's political development. The Bush administration also hopes it is a step closer to the day when U.S. forces can leave the country.
While in Iraq, Rice was meeting with the provisional governor, Duraid Kashmoula, a Sunni, whose cousin and predecessor was killed by insurgents last year.
She was also helping launch an experiment in the fight to clear insurgents from Iraqi cities and keep them at bay. She was reviewing three combined civilian-military units known as provisional reconstruction teams, which are rapid response units meant to move into violent areas once insurgents are gone and quickly establish order.
Units in Mosul, Hillah and Kirkuk are the first of 16 planned. Each may eventually have 60 to 100 people from various parts of the U.S. government.
Sunnis, stripped of their former political primacy under Saddam Hussein, first boycotted U.S.-backed efforts to establish a new representative government in Iraq, and then last month voted in large numbers against a national constitution many saw as sealing their fate as disempowered minority. The constitution passed, and Rice framed the voting as a success because Sunnis turned out at all.
In the province of Nineveh, which includes Mosul, the vote was 55 percent against the referendum and 45 percent for it.
Political progress has been offset in Mosul and elsewhere by pernicious violence, including the deaths last month in Mosul of four U.S. Embassy employees killed by a roadside bomb.
Rice arrived in Iraq the day after a suicide bomber killed 35 people at a Baghdad restaurant favored by police, and a car bomb killed seven at an Iraqi army recruiting center to the north. More than 30 people were wounded in the attacks, according to the AP.
Elsewhere, Iraqi troops along the Iranian border found 27 decomposing bodies, unidentified victims of the grisly violence plaguing the country.
Al-Qaida in Iraq claimed in an Internet posting that it staged the attack on the restaurant in retaliation for U.S. and Iraqi operations near the Syrian border. Earlier, it claimed responsibility for Wednesday night's deadly hotel bombings in neighboring Jordan, linking those blasts to the conflict in Iraq.