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Rice Meets With Iraqi Leaders In Baghdad

February 17, 2007 -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has met with senior Iraqi leaders in Baghdad to stress her hopes for progress to reconcile warring factions.

Meetings with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is a Shi'ite, President Jalal Talabani, who is a Kurd, and Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who is a Sunni, following her arrival for an unannounced visit.

Rice praised a joint U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown in the capital that began several days ago as "off to a good start."

"I want to say that we're very impressed with the leadership of the prime minister [Nuri al-Maliki] and his team," Rice said before the meetings. "Thus far we believe that they are clearly showing that this can be a new phase for the people of Iraq."

Rice is the highest-level U.S. official to visit Iraq since the start of the recent security operation in Baghdad.

U.S. and Iraqi forces sweeping through Baghdad are said to have encountered little resistance since launching the effort.

Al-Maliki reportedly told U.S. President George W. Bush by videolink on February 16 that the security operation has been a "brilliant success" so far.

With the situation somewhat calmer in recent days, Rice said it is important for the Iraqi authorities to use the "breathing space" that arises if militias "decide to stand down and stop killing innocent Iraqis" as a result of the security operation.

Rice said before today's meetings that she would urge Iraq's leaders to finalize an oil-revenue-sharing law and hold provincial elections.

Rice met with U.S. military and diplomatic officials ahead of her meetings with the Iraqi officials.

Militant Violence

Also today in Iraq, a double car bombing killed at least 10 people and wounded some 60 others in the northern city of Kirkuk.

The explosions occurred at a market in the Rahim Awa district, a predominantly Kurdish area in the ethnically mixed city. The blasts also damaged some 20 shops.

Iraqi security forces today reported finding 50 surface-to-air missiles in a weapons cache near Baghdad.

An Iraqi military spokesman said the weapons were Russian made and still usable.

The spokesman did not reveal the cache's exact location.

Seven U.S. military and private security helicopters have been shot down over the past month. The U.S. military has said "sophisticated weaponry" was probably responsible for one of the downings but that machine gun fireaccounted for the rest.

Rice Travels To Israel

Rice arrived in Israel later in the day, ahead of talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials aimed at reviving the peace process there. Rice was scheduled to meet with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

On February 19, she is due to hold talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas.

Earlier today, Abbas said Washington must accept the coalition between his Fatah movement and the Islamic militant group Hamas.

An aide to Abbas said the Palestinian leader told U.S. envoy David Welch at talks in Ramallah that the power-sharing agreement with Hamas was necessary to end factional fighting.

Abbas acknowledged that it fell short of U.S. demands that the Palestinian government recognize Israel.

Debate In Washington

House Democrats were joined by a handful of their Republican colleagues on February 16 to back a nonbinding motion resolution to oppose President George W. Bush's deployment of extra troops in Iraq.

The Senate convened for a special Saturday session to consider whether to debate the measure, which is aimed at challenging White House plans and speeding the departure of U.S. troops nearly four years after the U.S.-led military invasion of Iraq began.

(Reuters, AFP)

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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