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Rice optimistic but firm on Baghdad visit

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Iraqi government leaders Saturday that the contentious debate in Washington over President Bush’s war strategy reflects U.S. doubts that democracy will prevail over violence.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Iraqi government leaders Saturday that the contentious debate in Washington over President Bush’s war strategy reflects U.S. doubts that democracy will prevail over violence.

“Some of the debate in Washington is in fact indicative of the concerns that some of the American people have ... if the Iraqi government doesn’t do what it has said it will do,” Rice said she told leaders from all of Iraq’s factions.

Rice made an unannounced visit to Baghdad as the U.S. Senate deadlocked on whether to repeat a symbolic rebuke that the U.S. House handed Bush on Friday when it opposed the administration’s deployment of additional combat troops to Iraq.

Although Rice used her visit to publicly praise the Iraqi government’s role in a new security crackdown in Baghdad, an Iraqi official said she was more critical in private.

Rice optimistic about crackdown
Rice told Iraqi leaders that the Baghdad security operation needs to “rise above sectarianism” and noted that no U.S. or Iraqi forces have yet moved into the capital’s major Shiite militia stronghold, the Iraqi official said.

The official said Rice told Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that the initial stage of the crackdown, which began Wednesday, appeared to focus on Sunni areas and had left Sadr City, stronghold of the Mahdi Army militia, nearly untouched.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to release the information to the media.

He said Rice stopped short of accusing the Iraqis of displaying pro-Shiite bias in the operation and said it appeared that the crackdown was going well.

Official: Insurgents trying to down aircraft
Documents captured during a raid about a month ago show that al-Qaida in Iraq has a carefully planned strategy aimed at downing coalition aircraft using a variety of weapons, said a U.S. defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.

The official said the documents provide fresh evidence that the al-Qaida insurgency is adapting and posing new threats to U.S. forces. The contents of the seized materials were summarized in an intelligence report analyzing recent helicopter crashes.

The New York Times, which first reported on the intelligence analysis, said militants want to concentrate on air forces. “Attacks on coalition aircraft probably will increase if helicopter missions expand during the latest phase of the Baghdad Security Plan or if insurgents seek to emulate their recent successes,” the paper quoted the intelligence report as saying.

In the last month, at least six U.S. helicopters have gone down; five of the crashes were blamed on hostile ground fire. The deadliest was a Black Hawk hit by small arms fire on Jan. 20, killing all 12 soldiers aboard.

On Feb. 2, Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that ground fire has been more effective against U.S. helicopters recently. He said he didn’t know “if this is some kind of new tactics or techniques that we need to adjust to.”

U.S.: Iraqis are meeting benchmarks
Stakes are high for the plan to bring down violence in Baghdad, both to encourage Iraqis to trust their government and police and to demonstrate progress to an American public increasingly fed up with the war.

Bush’s approval rating stands at 32 percent, tied for his lowest standing in Associated Press-Ipsos polling, and most people in the United States find fault with his handling of the nearly four-year-old Iraq war.

“The United States is investing a great deal, most especially the lives of our men and women in uniform, and the American people want to see results and aren’t prepared to wait forever to see those results,” Rice told reporters.

Although reports from the first day or two of the operation placed Iraqi force participation at 45 percent to 55 percent of full strength, Rice said commanders have told her that Iraqi participation is now as high as 85 percent to 90 percent.

She said the Iraqi government is meeting a test she had set for its commitment to the plan by ensuring that the rules of engagement for the joint forces are equitable and nonsectarian. She said Iraqi leaders are also ably describing and defending the plan to Iraqis.

Rice is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Iraq since last month’s announcement of the security campaign. Her stop, coinciding with the congressional debate, appeared to reflect a calculation by the administration that focusing on potentially promising developments in Iraq was the best response to the congressional voting.

Meeting with a small group of troops and U.S. Embassy staff inside the old Saddam Hussein-era palace that serves as U.S. headquarters in the fortified Green Zone, Rice referenced the week of bitter debate on Capitol Hill.