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Rice Appeals to Sunnis on Surprise Iraq Visit

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a personal appeal Friday for Iraqis to bridge sectarian differences, venturing to a majority Sunni Arab region of the country to ask for cooperation in the coming election.

"I want to talk about the importance of reaching across sectarian lines," Rice said on her unannounced visit to this northern Iraqi city, which is about 60 percent Sunni Arab.

Rice made the comments to reporters traveling with her to the region. The secretary arrived at a military airport and rode by helicopter to U.S. base, flying over sheep grazing next to the roofless shells of bombed-out buildings and houses.

Rice's trip, her second to Iraq as secretary of state, comes five weeks before elections for a permanent Iraqi government. Like initial elections last January and a constitution-writing exercise this summer, the new round of voting is a marker of Iraq's political development. The Bush administration also hopes it is a step closer to the day when U.S. forces can leave the country.

While in Iraq, Rice was meeting with the provisional governor, Duraid Kashmoula, a Sunni, whose cousin and predecessor was killed by insurgents last year.

She was also helping launch an experiment in the fight to clear insurgents from Iraqi cities and keep them at bay. She was reviewing three combined civilian-military units known as provisional reconstruction teams, which are rapid response units meant to move into violent areas once insurgents are gone and quickly establish order.

Units in Mosul, Hillah and Kirkuk are the first of 16 planned. Each may eventually have 60 to 100 people from various parts of the U.S. government.

Sunnis, stripped of their former political primacy under Saddam Hussein, first boycotted U.S.-backed efforts to establish a new representative government in Iraq, and then last month voted in large numbers against a national constitution many saw as sealing their fate as disempowered minority. The constitution passed, and Rice framed the voting as a success because Sunnis turned out at all.

In the province of Nineveh, which includes Mosul, the vote was 55 percent against the referendum and 45 percent for it.

Political progress has been offset in Mosul and elsewhere by pernicious violence, including the deaths last month in Mosul of four U.S. Embassy employees killed by a roadside bomb.

Rice arrived in Iraq the day after a suicide bomber killed 35 people at a Baghdad restaurant favored by police, and a car bomb killed seven at an Iraqi army recruiting center to the north. More than 30 people were wounded in the attacks.

Elsewhere, Iraqi troops along the Iranian border found 27 decomposing bodies, unidentified victims of the grisly violence plaguing the country.

Al-Qaida in Iraq claimed in an Internet posting that it staged the attack on the restaurant in retaliation for U.S. and Iraqi operations near the Syrian border. Earlier, it claimed responsibility for Wednesday night's deadly hotel bombings in neighboring Jordan, linking those blasts to the conflict in Iraq.

As of Thursday, at least 2,056 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Flying to the region, Rice condemned the bombings in Jordan as the work of indiscriminate killers and said she may visit the kingdom while in the Mideast this week to show solidarity with an Arab ally in the fight against terrorism.

The nearly simultaneous attack on three Western hotels that killed at least 56 people — including partygoers at a wedding celebration — "underscores that these terrorists will attack innocent people without remorse," Rice said Thursday as she flew to the region.

Rice's trip, scheduled before Wednesday's bombings, included a stop in Bahrain for meetings on development and democratic progress in the Middle East. She will also visit Saudi Arabia, Israel and the West Bank.

Rice said she will talk to Jordanian leaders about whether to take a side trip to Jordan, saying she did not want to interfere with recovery efforts.

She said street protests against the bombings by angry Jordanians show the terrorists' message does not resonate.

"People are really tired of these killers," she said.

Rice expressed hope that a deal could be reached with Iran regarding its nuclear program. But she would not confirm that the United States would back a deal with Europe, described by senior officials and diplomats, to accept expanded Iranian nuclear activities if uranium enrichment is done in Russia.

"There is no U.S.-European proposal to the Iranians," Rice said. "I want to say that categorically. There isn't and there won't be."

The European Union, led by Britain, France and Germany, has negotiated with Tehran to allow legitimate civilian nuclear power development in Iran while preventing a spinoff of technology that could produce a bomb. The United States contends Iran has covert ambitions for a bomb, which Iran denies.

She also predicted that the United States has sufficient support at the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency to send Iran before the Security Council for possible sanctions. The International Atomic Energy Agency meets on Nov. 24, but a deal ahead of that date could avert a vote.