BAGHDAD Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice brought Iraq's leader a double-edged message Tuesday: praise for progress toward ending the nation's sectarian rifts, but also a warning not to squander the momentum after many false starts on reconciliation.
The meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki underscored Washington's push for faster and bolder efforts to heal differences between the Shiite-led government and Iraq's other main groups Sunni Arabs who were sidelined by the fall of Saddam Hussein and Kurds enjoying an economic boom in their near-autonomous enclave.
The Iraqi parliament took an important step last week to open the way for low-ranking members of Saddam's Baath Party to reclaim government posts and pensions. Rice congratulated al-Maliki for the "quite remarkable" progress on national reconciliation.
But she pressed for more telling al-Maliki not to lose a "golden opportunity" during President Bush's final year in office to bring Sunni Arabs into a unity government, according to three Iraqi officials with knowledge of the talks.
The officials said Rice further warned that the recent reduction of violence in Iraq could prove fleeting if the country's main groups did not reach an enduring agreement on the future of the country.
The fragility of the security gains was highlighted shortly after Rice's visit. At least five mortars landed in the U.S.-protected Green Zone, home to the U.S. Embassy and many Iraqi government offices. There were no immediate reports of casualties or serious damage.
Rice lauded Iraqi lawmaker's approval Saturday to grant jobs and benefits for some Baath party members. She portrayed it as evidence that last year's "surge" of American forces was paying dividends by cutting violence and allowing political reforms.
"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 told a news conference. "I hope we will focus on what needs to be done, but also on how much has been done," said Rice, who flew to Baghdad from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
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 added.
Rice urged al-Maliki to take advantage of Bush's final year in the White House to aggressively pursue outreach setting the return of Sunni Arabs to the Iraqi Cabinet as a top priority, according to the Iraqi officials.
One of the officials said al-Maliki promised to bring back Sunni Cabinet members "in the near future."
Bush has vigorously supported al-Maliki. But Bush's Democratic critics have not been as supportive, with some charging that al-Maliki lacked the leadership needed to make difficult decisions to reconcile the war-battered nation.
Rice's emphasis on reconciliation comes at a time when the embattled al-Maliki appears unable to hold together a functioning government that represents all Iraqis.
Six Sunni Arab ministers quit al-Maliki's government in August to protest his perceived Shiite bias. Kurds remain in the government, but differences have emerged over a draft legislation to divvy up Iraq's oil revenue and settle control of Kirkuk, the oil-rich city claimed by the Kurds. The city's Arab and Turkomen communities object to the Kurdish claim.
Al-Maliki has threatened to fill the vacant Cabinet posts with members of Sunni groups so-called Awakening Councils that rose against al-Qaida in Iraq and threw support behind U.S. and Iraqi forces.
But al-Maliki also has antagonized many Sunnis by blocking the integration of Awakening Council fighters into the Shiite-dominated security forces. The Pentagon credits the new Sunni allies for taking a crucial role in uprooting al-Qaida from strongholds in and around Baghdad.
In another sign of possible political repair, al-Maliki met Monday with one of his key foes, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab who orchestrated the Sunni Cabinet walkout last year.
The meeting the first between the two leaders in months came after mediation by top politicians, including President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite, and Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the country's largest Shiite party. Rice met all three Tuesday.
"Monday's meeting narrowed differences and created a climate of trust," said Salim Abdullah, a Sunni lawmaker and spokesman for the Accordance Front led by al-Hashemi.
The return of the Sunnis to the government could go a long way in restoring the leadership credentials of al-Maliki, but should not be taken as the magic key to national reconciliation.
Awakening Council leaders have made no secret of their political ambitions and some claim that they, rather than traditional Sunni parties, are the true representative of the Sunni Arab community.
Washington also has a long list of steps still ahead it considers benchmarks to promote reconciliation, including rules on provincial elections and legislation on the equitable distribution of oil revenue.
In northern Iraq, Turkish warplanes bombed Kurdish rebel hideouts, the Turkish military announced. The attack came as Turkey's deputy military commander made a surprise trip to Baghdad the first visit to Iraq by a top Turkish commander since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Gen. Ergin Saygun, the Turkish military's second-in-command, met with a top Iraqi officer as well as Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, the military said in a separate statement.
The Army said they discussed possible military cooperation and ways to battle Kurdish rebels, who use mountain bases in northern Iraq for cross-border raids into Turkey. The guerrillas seek greater freedom for Turkey's Kurds.
Tuesday's Turkish air raid was the fourth on rebel positions in northern Iraq since mid-December. Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, vowed on Monday to "finish" the rebels soon.