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Rice makes surprise Iraq visit

Salahaddin (Iraq), May 15 (Reuters): US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice made a surprise visit to Iraq today for talks with political leaders grappling with a surge in violence since a new cabinet was formed last month.

Rice said she wanted to discuss ways to move the political process forward to help quell an insurgency that has killed more than 400 people in just over two weeks.

“The insurgency is very violent but you defeat insurgencies not just militarily ' in fact not especially militarily ' you defeat them by having a political alternative that is strong,” she told reporters travelling with her on the plane.

Extreme security measures were put in place for Rice’s visit. She is the most senior US official to visit Iraq since the new government was formed on April 28.

Even the pilots of the military aircraft that flew her to Arbil, 350 km north of Baghdad did not know the identity of their passenger until she got on board, her advisers said.

She wore body armour for the trip, her helicopter skimming low over the ground as machinegunners on board scanned the landscape for potential threats.

After arriving in Arbil, Rice flew by helicopter to Salahaddin for talks with Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, before moving on to Baghdad.

Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari was only told of the visit on Friday, senior Rice adviser Jim Wilkinson said.

In talks with Jaafari, Rice discussed speeding up the training of Iraqi forces to take on greater security duties.

“We are fighting a very tough set of terrorists who are, it seems, determined to stop the progress of the Iraqi people,” Rice told a news conference with Jaafari.

US national security adviser Stephen Hadley said Rice’s trip was part of a US effort to reach out to minority Sunnis. Sunni Arabs dominated Iraq under dictator Saddam Hussein and make up the backbone of the insurgency.

She played down concerns about political bickering that delayed the formation of a government following elections on January 30.

She said it would take time to build a democratic system “on the ruins of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq”. “If I am surprised by anything, it is that they have been able to do it (in three months),” she told reporters.

Asked about the importance of drafting a new constitution by an August 15 deadline, Rice said, “Things do not happen overnight. We have become very impatient people. Iraq is emerging from a long national nightmare of tyranny into freedom.”

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