Rice Lauds Iraq Progress During Surprise Stop in Baghdad

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday that Iraq's national reconciliation has moved along "quite remarkably," citing a new law that lets thousands of former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party reclaim government jobs or pensions.

Rice, who split off from President Bush's Mideast tour for a surprise visit to Baghdad, said the Iraqi parliament's approval Saturday of the U.S.-sought benchmark law was a first step and showed that last year's "surge" of American forces was paying dividends.

"It is clearly a step forward for national reconciliation — a step forward for healing the wounds of the past, and it will have to be followed up by implementation that is in the same spirit of national reconciliation," she said during a news conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.

Meanwhile, in an interview published Tuesday by The New York Times, Iraq's defense minister said the country would not be able to assume full responsibility for internal security until 2012 and be unable to defend its borders until at least 2018.

"According to our calculations and our timelines, we think that from the first quarter of 2009 until 2012 we will be able to take full control of the internal affairs of the country," said the minister, Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi.

"In regard to the borders, regarding protection from any external threats, our calculation appears that we are not going to be able to answer to any external threats until 2018 to 2020," he said.

Rice left Riyadh, the Saudi capital, to personally convey Bush's encouragement about signs of progress in Baghdad.

"I hope we will focus on what needs to be done, but also on how much has been done," Rice said. Although national reconciliation "has not always moved as fast as some of us sitting in Washington would like, it has certainly moved and, given the legacy, history and stains of tyranny, it has been quite remarkable," she said.

Bush said Rice could "help push the momentum by her very presence" and that he himself would not go to Iraq while traveling in the region. There had been widespread speculation he would make a visit.

In Baghdad, Rice met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and Iraqi officials said she congratulated him on the passage of the so-called de-Baathification legislation reinstating some former Saddam loyalists to government jobs.

Ali al-Dabbagh, al-Maliki's spokesman, said Rice and the prime minister met for about 45 minutes, of which 30 minutes were one-on-one. He said she also briefed him on Bush's trip.

The de-Baathification law is one of 18 steps which the United States considers benchmarks to promoting reconciliation among the country's Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.

A senior aide to al-Maliki said Rice also encouraged the prime minister to promote the progress of the other benchmark legislation, including provincial elections, constitutional amendments and a law to share the country's oil and gas resources among the different sects.

In northern Iraq on Tuesday, Turkish warplanes bombed Turkish Kurd rebel hideouts, the Turkish military announced.

It was the fourth aerial attack on rebel positions in northern Iraq since the military launched a bombing campaign on Dec. 16. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed on Monday to "finish" the rebels soon.

The Turkish bombardment started at about 11:30 a.m. and was still going on, said Zirar Mohammed, a top administrative official in the Iraqi border town of Sedakanil and Col. Hussein Tamir of the border forces in the city of Dahuk.

In the southern city of Basra, meanwhile, a fire broke out early Tuesday in a major oil refinery, burning four workers, the Iraqi oil ministry said.

Iraqi Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani said a preliminary investigation results showed that a U.S. helicopter hovering over the refinery was to blame — a statement disputed by the U.S. military.

"This is what caused the fire and led to the leakage of a huge amount of liquid gas as the blaze hit the gas production unit," al-Shahristani said in a statement. He added that his ministry "had warned many times against aircraft flying above oil institutions and especially refineries."

It was not clear how a helicopter's presence could have caused the fire, though aircraft often release flares to ward off ground attacks.

Scott Rye, a U.S. military spokesman, told The Associated Press that "the cause of the fire is currently under investigation, but I can assure you it was not caused by overflight of any coalition helicopters."

The fire at the Shuaiba refinery started at 7 a.m. "due to an explosion," said Assem Jihad, the Oil Ministry spokesman. He said firefighters were able to control the fire, "which hit the gas unit," and that production was continuing.

Basra, where about 80 percent of Iraq's oil reserves are located, is Iraq's second-largest city, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad.