IMAGE: Rice with ambassador Crocker.
Marwan Ibrahim  /  AFP - Getty Images
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, right, sits next to U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker as they attend a meeting with Kurdish, Sunni, Christian, Turkmen and Shiite community leaders in Kirkuk, north of Baghdad, on Tuesday.
updated 12/18/2007 10:53:50 AM ET 2007-12-18T15:53:50

The U.S., Iraq and Turkey have a "common interest" in stopping Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Tuesday, while cautioning against action that could destabilize the region.

Earlier, the Turkish army sent about 300 soldiers into northern Iraq, Kurdish officials said . The incursion followed Turkish airstrikes in the same region over the weekend.

Rice made an unannounced visit to Kirkuk, the city that Iraq's Kurds call their Jerusalem, which is in an oil-rich territory claimed by many and where the United States says it sees new signs of cooperation and progress.

She was visiting members of a civilian-military reconstruction unit based in Kirkuk and meeting provincial politicians of all stripes, and planned seeing Iraq's central leadership later in Baghdad. The reconstruction units were expanded along with the escalation of U.S. forces President Bush ordered this year.

Sunni Arabs ended a yearlong political boycott earlier this month in Kirkuk -- the hub of Iraq's northern oil fields -- under a deal that sets aside government posts for Arabs. It was the biggest step yet toward unity ahead of a referendum on the area's future.

Rice was highlighting that development, although a separate ethnic group is still boycotting the provincial governing council, and the new role of the United Nations in resolving the future of disputed Kirkuk.

Rice's visit is her first since a surprise joint appearance with Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates in September, ahead of a report card to Congress on Iraq's progress. The assessment gave disappointing marks to Iraqi political efforts, which remain mired in political squabbling and sectarian maneuvering, and better grades to U.S.-assisted security benchmarks.

Underscoring reduction in violence
Tuesday's visit was meant to underscore an overall reduction in violence that the Bush administration largely attributes to the escalation of U.S. forces Bush ordered a year ago.

Attacks in Iraq are at their lowest levels since the first year of the American invasion in 2003, finally opening a window for reconciliation among rival sects, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the No. 2 commander in Iraq, said Sunday.

Kirkuk is an especially coveted city for both the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurdish one in Irbil.

Kurds want to incorporate it into their self-rule area, but the idea has met stiff resistance from Arabs and a constitutionally required referendum on the issue was delayed to next year.

Much of Iraq's vast oil wealth lies under the ground in the region, as well as in the Shiite-controlled south. Kurds refer to Kirkuk as the "Kurdish Jerusalem," and control of the area's oil resources and its cultural attachment to Kurdistan have been hotly contested.

"It truly is the crossing point for every one of Iraq's ethnicities, every one of Iraq's religions and sects," said David Satterfield, Rice's top adviser for Iraq. "Kirkuk is often identified as a flashpoint for the future of Iraq."

The U.N. sent a special representative to Iraq last month who will help manage competing interests leading up to a referendum now expected in 2008. Iraq's constitution required the referendum by the end of this year.

The U.N. representative, Staffan de Mistura, replaces a U.N. diplomat assassinated in Baghdad in 2003, just months into the U.S.-led occupation. The U.N. pulled its operations back and resisted a high-profile role until now.

Satterfield said preparing for the Kirkuk referendum is an example of a job best done by a world body such as the U.N. instead of by the United States.

Turkey fears Kurdish independence
Turkey and other countries in the region with Kurdish minorities have long feared that Kurdish control of Kirkuk's vast wealth would encourage Kurds toward declaring independence from Iraq — a move that Iraq's neighbors could not tolerate.

Tension over the issue spiked when Sunni Arab lawmakers walked out of the provincial council in November 2006, claiming discrimination by the Kurdish majority. They ended their boycott after Kurdish lawmakers agreed to allot one-third of government jobs to Arabs and appoint an Arab as deputy governor.

"We see a logjam being broken here," Satterfield said.

Kurds are generally thought to have a slight majority in the province, with Sunni Arabs close behind, though a census has not been conducted in 50 years.

Provinces cannot schedule new elections until passage of a law known as the Provincial Powers Act, which is currently mired in Iraq's parliament in Baghdad.

Mistrust between Arabs and Kurds runs deep, and even the province's name sparks controversy. Kurds, Turkomen and most Sunni Arabs call the province Kirkuk, the same name as its capital city. But many Shiite Arabs, who came here by the tens of thousands under Saddam Hussein's "Arabization" program, refer to the province as Tamim, the Arabic word for "to nationalize."

Notably, Rice was not holding a separate meeting with the semiautonomous Kurdish leadership while in Kirkuk. Kurdish leaders have chafed under U.S. demands for greater inclusion in the Baghdad government and swifter work to complete a framework law for managing and distributing Iraq's oil wealth.

The last time Rice visited the region, last year, she held a press conference on a stage decorated with Kurdish flags instead of the Baghdad standard. Kurdish leaders also resented U.S. pressure this fall to do more to hunt rebels who use the territory for cross-border attacks in Turkey.

Iraqi leaders complained Monday that Turkey had not coordinated with Baghdad before sending dozens of warplanes to bomb Kurdish rebel targets in northern Iraq. The target area was in the Kurdish region Rice visited, although some distance from Kirkuk.

Sunday's assault was the largest aerial attack in years against the outlawed separatist group. Turkey's military chief said the strikes used U.S. intelligence, and U.S. officials said Washington was informed of the plan.

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