Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday that Iraq’s national reconciliation has moved along “quite remarkably,” citing a new law that lets thousands of former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party reclaim government jobs or pensions.
Rice, who split off from President Bush’s Mideast tour for a visit to Baghdad, said the Iraqi parliament’s approval Saturday of the U.S.-sought benchmark law was a first step and showed that last year’s “surge” of American forces was paying dividends.
“It is clearly a step forward for national reconciliation — a step forward for healing the wounds of the past, and it will have to be followed up by implementation that is in the same spirit of national reconciliation,” she said during a news conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.
Iraqi officials said Rice warned Iraqi leaders they should not pass up a “golden opportunity” during Bush’s last year in office to intensify their efforts for national reconciliation. Speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to share the information with the media, they said Rice also told them that the formation of a “national unity” government should be a top priority for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Al-Maliki’s government, dominated by Shiite Muslims, has promoted a Shiite agenda and has been slow to include Sunnis in the police and other national groups as they have formed groups to fight al-Qaida in Iraq.
Delay in handling internal security
Meanwhile, in an interview published Tuesday by The New York Times, Iraq’s defense minister said the country would not be able to assume full responsibility for internal security until 2012 and be unable to defend its borders until at least 2018.
“In regard to the borders, regarding protection from any external threats, our calculation appears that we are not going to be able to answer to any external threats until 2018 to 2020,” the minister, Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi, was quoted as saying.
Rice left Riyadh, the Saudi capital, to personally convey Bush’s encouragement about signs of progress in Baghdad.
Although national reconciliation “has not always moved as fast as some of us sitting in Washington would like, it has certainly moved and, given the legacy, history and stains of tyranny, it has been quite remarkable,” she said.
No Bush visit to Baghdad
Bush said Rice could “help push the momentum by her very presence” and that he himself would not go to Iraq while traveling in the region. There had been widespread speculation he would make a visit.
Rice met with al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani and his two vice presidents, Adel Abdul-Mahdi and Tariq al-Hashemi, as well as Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of Iraq’s largest Shiite party, and Massoud Barzani, president of the self-ruled Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
The de-Baathification law is one of 18 steps that the United States considers benchmarks to promoting reconciliation among the country’s Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.
A senior aide to al-Maliki said Rice also encouraged the prime minister to promote the progress of the other benchmark legislation, including provincial elections, constitutional amendments and a law to share the country’s oil and gas resources among the different sects.
In northern Iraq on Tuesday, Turkish warplanes bombed Turkish Kurd rebel hideouts, the Turkish military announced.
It was the fourth aerial attack on rebel positions in northern Iraq since the military launched a bombing campaign on Dec. 16. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed on Monday to “finish” the rebels soon.
The Turkish military’s second-in-command, Gen. Ergin Saygun, made an unannounced visit to Baghdad — the first visit to Iraq by a top Turkish commander since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
He met with top Iraqi military officials as well as Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, to discuss fighting Kurdish rebels and possible military cooperation, the military said in a separate statement.
Oil refinery fire
In the southern city of Basra, meanwhile, a fire broke out early Tuesday in a major oil refinery, burning four workers, the Iraqi oil ministry said.
Iraqi Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani said a preliminary investigation results showed that a U.S. helicopter hovering over the refinery was to blame — a statement disputed by the U.S. military.
“This is what caused the fire and led to the leakage of a huge amount of liquid gas as the blaze hit the gas production unit,” al-Shahristani said in a statement. He added that his ministry “had warned many times against aircraft flying above oil institutions and especially refineries.”
It was not clear how a helicopter’s presence could have caused the fire, though aircraft often release flares to ward off ground attacks.
Scott Rye, a U.S. military spokesman, said that “the cause of the fire is currently under investigation, but I can assure you it was not caused by overflight of any coalition helicopters.”
The fire at the Shuaiba refinery started at 7 a.m. “due to an explosion,” said Assem Jihad, the Oil Ministry spokesman. He said firefighters were able to control the fire, “which hit the gas unit,” and that production was continuing.
Basra, where about 80 percent of Iraq’s oil reserves are located, is Iraq’s second-largest city, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad.