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Rice Makes Unannounced Visit to Iraq


Condoleezza Rice is making an unannounced visit to Iraq. Her first stop was Kirkuk. There, she urged reconciliation among Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen who share the oil-rich region that surrounds the northern city. Later, Rice flew to Baghdad in this, her eighth visit as secretary of state - a visit that has been somewhat overshadowed by a Turkish military incursion into northern Iraq. We go now to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who's in Baghdad. And why did Secretary Rice make Kirkuk her very first stop?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Well, I'm not sure about the sequence why that occurred, but certainly, the importance the Kirkuk is - cannot be denied. We're talking about a city that many refer to as Iraq's Jerusalem, where you have Arabs and Kurds and Turkmen who are all vying for control of this city, because it lies in an oil-rich area. The Arabs fear that if the Kurds take this, that it's going bolster their claim or desire for an autonomous region, and also the neighbors of Iraq are concerned about this, that this is going to fuel their own Kurdish separatist movements in their countries. So she went up there to sort of highlight the need for reconciliation, and also to point to some of the progress that's gone on in terms of reduction in violence, and smaller steps in terms of agreements between the Arabs and the Kurds up there.

MONTAGNE: What more can you tell us about this visit, generally?

NELSON: Well, she's here at a time where political progress has sort of stagnated. We have the parliament in recess at the moment because of Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia to the holy cites of Mecca and Medina, and various holidays, including Christmas and (unintelligible) that are going on. And there's a great sense of urgency that now that the violence is, in fact, down to levels that we haven't seen in two and half years, that there needs to be political progress on national reconciliation, on dividing up oil revenues and in other areas to really bring governance and services back to the people.

MONTAGNE: Well, given that security has improved in, as you've said, in recent months, why has there been so little political progress, given Iraqis are enjoying a rather - for their context - a low level of violence?

NELSON: Well, a lot of the disagreements and the hatred remains. I mean, there's the - everyone's jockeying for political power here. The Shiite-dominated government is not necessarily well received by Sunni Arabs or Kurds or the Turkmen. Everybody wants to have their say here in Iraq. And so, even though the violence has gone down, as we said earlier, that the political will just isn't there yet.

MONTAGNE: And Soraya, we're following reports today about Turkish troops moving into northern Iraq, and that follows a bombing campaign against Kurdish rebel hideouts that began this last weekend. What can you tell us about that?

NELSON: This seems to be part of a continuing campaign to get rid of Kurdish rebels in the north who are causing problems for Turkey on the other side of the border. And so what we've heard thus far is that 300 Turkish troops have, in fact, crossed the border in northern Iraq near the city of Irbil, and that they are looking for rebels. And it's unclear if they are casualties or anything at this point. But this is obviously going to cause a lot of heartache here for Iraqi government officials, and it certainly overshadows the visit today by Secretary Rice.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, speaking from Baghdad.

NELSON: You're welcome, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.