Rice Begins Middle East Trip with Surprise Stop in Baghdad

By Ralph Dannheisser
USINFO Special Correspondent

Washington - The joint U.S.-Iraqi security push against militant factions in Baghdad is bringing “a new hope and a new optimism” to the Iraqi capital, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said during an unannounced stop there as she begins a round of visits in the Middle East.

Rice made her comment to reporters February 17 after meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and other government officials.

In media briefings both before and after her Baghdad meetings, the secretary cautioned that success in the long run would depend on how effectively the Iraqi government uses any period of relative calm that the crackdown provides.

“If, in fact, militias have decided to stand down and stop killing innocent Iraqis … that can’t be a bad thing,” she told the traveling media en route to Iraq. “But how the Iraqis use the breathing space that that might provide is what’s really important,” the secretary added.

Rice ticked off what she considers some of those important elements to be:

“Is there really progress on political reconciliation? Is there progress on bringing people into the political process who have been outside of it? Is there process neighborhood by neighborhood in showing that the Iraqis, following on what we can do, are prepared to deliver jobs and opportunity and reconstruction to these areas that have been hard hit by sectarian violence?”

She said that national reconciliation efforts “need to move along more quickly,” as “the wait for progress can’t be endless.”

Rice noted the Iraqis have  “made a lot of progress on the oil law,” and said, “it would be good if that gets finished.”  Laws dealing with the de-Baathification process and provincial elections must move ahead as well, she added.

Before her meeting with Iraqi officials, the secretary addressed U.S. embassy and military personnel in Baghdad’s Green Zone.

Rice declared then that “this mission, bringing a stable and secure Iraq, is also essential for the security of the United States of America.” (See related article.)

After the terrorist strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, she continued, “we decided that we had to go on the offense” to stave off further attacks.

“And that meant coming to the source of the problem here in the Middle East and … trying to actually bring about a different kind of Middle East,” she said.

The secretary acknowledged disagreements in the United States over war policy, but stressed to her audience that there is no disagreement whatever over the honorable role they are playing. (See related article.)

“[S]ome do not think that this was the right war to fight, and others think that we in the administration haven’t fought this war quite right,” Rice said. But, she added, “[W]hen you hear the criticism of the war or the criticism of the President or of me or of anybody else, I do want you to know that to a person at home, your honor and your sacrifice and your labor is appreciated ... I don’t care what people think of the policies; …[what you’re doing is] appreciated across the board.”

Rice rejected the thought that “the American people don’t want to fight this war anymore.”

“The American people want to know that we can succeed. Because they, too, want to succeed. And so we will have our discussions and our debates at home, but Americans want to win this war,” she said.

“They want to leave an Iraq that is better than the one they found. They want to leave an Iraq that is going to be a pillar of a stable Middle East.”

Rice’s stopover in Baghdad preceded planned visits to Jerusalem, the Palestinian Territories and Amman, Jordan. She is scheduled to meet jointly in Jerusalem February 19 with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. (See related article.)

Her current trip is to end with a visit to Berlin, where the Quartet for Middle East peace will discuss steps to be pursued in implementing the “road map” to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. The Quartet includes the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States.

Transcripts of Rice's remarks en route to Baghdad and with U.S. personnel in Iraq are available on the State Department Web site.