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Rice in Iraq to Support Prime Minister, Urge Faster Progress

By Philip Shenon
THE NEW YORK TIMES


BAGHDAD

Wearing a helmet and a flak jacket and flanked by machine-gun-toting bodyguards to defend against insurgents, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came here Thursday, insisting that there were new signs of progress in Iraq and that the Bush administration had never sugarcoated its news about the American occupation.

“It is a quite critical time for the Iraqi government,” Rice said of the reasons for her brief, unannounced visit to the Iraqi capital.

“What the American people see on their television screens is the struggle,” she said. “It is harder to show the political process that is going on at local levels, at provincial levels and indeed at the national level.” Iraqis, she said, are “making progress.”

Rice said she was in Iraq to offer support to Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki and to urge him to move faster to settle political differences that are seen as having prevented actions to curb the insurgents’ violence.

“The security situation is not one that can be tolerated and is not one that is helped by political inaction,” said Rice, who met twice with al-Maliki on Thursday and praised him for his “excellent leadership of Iraq.”

Yet signs of progress were not much in evidence in the first hours of her visit.

It began inauspiciously when the military transport plane that brought her to Baghdad was forced to circle the city for about 40 minutes because of what a State Department spokesman later said was either mortar fire or rockets at the airport.

On Thursday evening, during her meeting with President Jalal Talabani, the lights went out, forcing Rice to continue the discussion in the dark. It was a reminder of the city’s erratic — and sometimes nonexistent — electrical service.

She arrived in the midst of an especially bloody few days for American troops. At least 21 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq since Saturday, most in Baghdad. Two car bombings in the city on Thursday left at least four Iraqi civilians dead.

The extraordinary security precautions for Rice’s trip here — her first to Iraq in six months, her fifth as secretary of state — were evidence of continuing turmoil in Iraq three years after the American ouster of Saddam Hussein.

Traveling from Israel on Thursday morning, Rice had to abandon her comfortable official jet at an American air base in Turkey and to board a C-17A cargo plane equipped with anti-missile technology for the final, 90-minute leg into Baghdad; that procedure has become routine for all high-ranking Bush administration officials visiting Iraq.

From the airport in Baghdad, Rice flew by military helicopter to the heavily fortified American-controlled Green Zone, bypassing the dangerous, explosives-strewn airport highway into the city.

Reporters traveling with her were told of the Baghdad trip only hours before departure and were instructed not to share details with anyone, including their editors and families, until she had arrived safely. They were barred from reporting how long she would stay in Iraq until after she had left the country.