Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Monday Iran has chosen to scale back much of its most troubling interference in Iraq, and she credits the strength of U.S. pressure. "I don't think it's goodwill," Rice told The Associated Press in a wide-ranging interview covering two wars, the fight against pirates, Mideast peace prospects and more.
The Bush administration's top diplomat, who leaves office in 36 days, testily defended U.S. intervention in Iraq as an effort worth the cost in lives, money and heartache.
Trying to put the unsettling image of an Iraqi television reporter hurling his shoes at a visiting President Bush in the best possible light, Rice said it demonstrates how far the former dictatorship has come.
The shoe incident Sunday in Baghdad "is a kind of sign of the freedom that people feel in Iraq," Rice said.
The Iraqi man yelled at Bush that the shoes — a gesture of profound disdain in Iraq and elsewhere in the Muslim world — were a goodbye present to a dog.
Bush brushed it off, and Rice called it insignificant in comparison to the development of a pluralistic democratic government in a country once devastated by Saddam's brutal rule.
Wants Bush peace plan continued
Speaking before she left Washington for two days of United Nations business, Rice said the U.S. wants the U.N. Security Council to enshrine Bush's Israeli-Palestinian peace effort as the best chance yet to end the six-decade conflict. The talks begun at Annapolis, Md., last year should not be dropped by the incoming Obama administration for failure to meet a stated goal of a peace framework on Bush's watch, she said.
"The Security Council will make clear that that is the basis" for continuing peace efforts, Rice said.
The resolution calls on the Israelis and Palestinians "to fulfill their obligations" under the Annapolis process and for all nations and international groups "to contribute to an atmosphere conducive to negotiations."
On other topics, Rice:
- Said that during her U.N. trip, she would consult with foreign diplomats on the continuing instability in Somalia and the rampant piracy off its coastline. The administration favors creating a multinational peacekeeping force for Somalia, but is not yet ready to push for a Security Council vote on the matter. Despite concerns by U.S. military officials in recent days, Rice also defended the U.S. proposal for U.N. authorization to pursue pirates ashore in Somalia. She said the Bush administration is united behind the idea that American or other forces might need to take on pirates under "hot pursuit" on land.
- Urged more pressure from Zimbabwe's neighbors to force President Robert Mugabe to step down, saying the political, economic and health crisis that has developed on his watch "simply can't go on." She said a more comprehensive, regional approach is needed because up to now, "we're putting plugs in a dike."
- Said the United States, Japan, Russia, China and South Korea agree on how to pressure the North Koreans to make commitments on inspections of its nuclear program. Four days of talks in Beijing last week ended in a stalemate due to Pyongyang's refusal to make written commitments on inspections of its nuclear programs, but Rice said there is still time to continue consulting.
On Iran, Rice said the clerical regime is finding it harder to operate inside next-door Iraq, and claimed that a turning point was last spring's rout of Iranian-backed forces in the southern city of Basra.
Rice: Iranians unable to operate effectively
"The Iranians find themselves unable to operate as effectively in Iraq because we've been very aggressive against their agents," Rice said in her farewell interview with AP reporters and editors at the State Department.
In Basra, Rice emphasized, "they flat-out lost."
Shiite militias supported by Iran fought but then fled in the Basra siege. Some fighters apparently fled to Iran itself, and it is not clear what those forces might do next.
President-elect Barack Obama has said he wants to pursue forceful diplomacy with Iran while preparing for a swift withdrawal of fighting forces from Iraq.
Iran strongly opposed the recently signed security agreement between the United States and Iraq, which would keep U.S. forces in the country for three years.
"They're in a much more difficult situation in terms of Iraq," Rice said. "They did everything they could to stop the strategic forces arrangement — they couldn't do it."
U.S. and Iraqi officials have said Iran has made an apparently deliberate decision to curb the supply of a particularly deadly form of roadside bomb used to ambush U.S. forces. The United States has long claimed that an element of Iran's elite Republican Guard funnels the weapons to insurgents.
"It was getting to be a very tough business, given that we pursued them and pursued them hard," the secretary said.
Rice, an architect of U.S. policy in Iraq, said that Iran will continue to play a role in Iraq. But she also predicted that it will be a less meddlesome force. Rice also repeated claims that slow-moving U.N. sanctions are hurting Iran in the pocketbook.