by Sylvie LanteaumeFri Oct 6, 5:03 AM ET
US Secretary of State Rice continued her surprise visit to Iraq with a trip to the Kurdish autonomous region in the north for talks on sharing of the country's oil wealth.
She met for 45 minutes with regional President Massud Barzani, who said in a joint press conference afterwards that "we are for a fair distribution of oil revenues for the Iraqis."
Tensions between the Kurdish region and the rest of the country peaked recently when the Kurds began to independently pursue foreign oil deals and threatened to secede when the central government objected.
The three predominantly Kurdish northern provinces of Iraq form the Kurdish Autonomous Region, which increasingly operates as a separate entity from the rest of the country.
Barzani even ordered in September that the Iraqi national flag no longer be displayed in government offices next to the Kurdish regional flag -- provoking fears of Kurdish secession in the rest of the country.
And only the US and Kurdish flags were on display during the Rice-Barzani press conference.
The Iraqi parliament is currently considering a measure, strongly opposed by the large but resource-poor Sunni Muslim minority, that would formally enshrine federalism in Iraq. In contrast, the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south have ample petroleum reserves and strongly favor the measure.
Speaking to reporters Thursday night, Rice said: "Our view, which has been communicated to the Iraqis and which I think most Iraqis agree with, is that oil needs to be a unifying factor and not one that would help to make the country less unified."
Barzani told the press conference that his meeting with Rice was constructive and that their views were "very similar"
Rice's unannounced visit came after Monday's breakthrough pledge by Iraq's political factions to work together to halt the bloodshed -- a move welcomed by the US envoy, who urged rapid implementation.
"Our role is to support all the parties and indeed to press all the parties to work towards that resolution promptly," Rice said.
"Obviously the security situation is not one that can be tolerated and it isn't one that has been helped by political inaction," she warned.
Rice met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani, as well with all the other top Iraqi politicians.
Maliki went out of his way to state that the reconciliation initiative was not reached under foreign pressure.
"The mass murders have shocked the people," he said on Iraqi television. "The initiative was not dictated by outsiders but by the will of the Iraqis."
Rice emphasized her confidence in Maliki's leadership several times during the trip, in a clear effort to counter reports out of Washington that the US leadership has become disenchanted with Iraq's embattled prime minister.
"I do think he has the strength. I think he's a very good and strong prime minister," Rice told reporters on her plane, praising Maliki's steps to purge his security forces of rogue elements supporting sectarian death squads.
"The government and Prime Minister Maliki believe very strongly that their most important work now is to be done in getting the political bargain in place in terms of national reconciliation," she added.
She did, however, say that the rampant sectarian violence convulsing Baghdad and the neighoring provinces was making it difficult to marshal US domestic support for Iraq's crisis.
"What they see is Iraqis killing Iraqis. That is not a good image. The world, the American people need to see a different image," Rice spokesman Sean McCormack told journalists.
"Of all of the threats facing Iraq -- the insurgency, Al-Qaeda terror, sectarian violence -- it is the sectarian violence that poses the strategic threat to success, so it has got to be addressed," he added.
"If they want the support of the world, they have to take action."
The endemic violence roiling the capital was in full evidence for Rice's visit, including a rocket attack on the airport upon her arrival that forced her military C-130 transport plan to spend 45 minutes circling the airfield.
A Kurdish parliamentarian was also found dead with his bodyguard, riddled with bullets, on Thursday night.
Mortar rounds fell on a northeast Baghdad neighborhood early Friday, wounding seven people from the same family.
Even as car bombs and makeshift explosives are at an all-time high for the year in Baghdad, there has been a rise in mortar salvos launched from rival neighborhoods across the city.
US casualties are also mounting. Since Monday, 16 US soldiers have been killed, mostly in Baghdad, in a spike in casualties that brought the number killed since March 2003 to 2,732, according to an AFP count based on Pentagon figures.