U.S. officials' surprise visit irks Iraqis

BAGHDAD, IRAQ — BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The United States' top diplomat joined the defense secretary in a surprise visit to Baghdad yesterday to express support for Iraq's new leaders as they try to put their troubled nation back on course.

But Iraqi officials said they, too, were surprised by the unannounced arrival of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, and some said they feared that it could disrupt negotiations to form a new government and erode its legitimacy.


"We didn't invite them," said Kamal Saadi, a Shiite legislator close to newly named prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. (Al-Maliki said this week that he is reverting to his original first name, Nouri. He said he had adopted the name Jawad during his time in exile, to protect his family in Iraq.)

Saadi said Iraqi leaders had not been notified in advance of the visit, which came days after Iraqi politicians broke through a critical impasse on the naming of a prime minister.


"Maybe Rumsfeld's visit can be justified," because of the U.S. troop presence, "but I can't see a clear reason behind Rice's visit," he said. "The crisis is over, and negotiations are taking place."

Since Iraq's elections in December, U.S. officials have pushed Iraqi officials to form a national unity government. During the nearly four-month delay, Iraq has been rocked by violence with increasingly sectarian overtones, raising the specter of civil war.

Rice told reporters during a joint news conference with Rumsfeld that al-Maliki and others made clear in meetings that "this is a time that Iraqis are taking responsibility for their own future. We can be partners. We can support. We can help. But this is Iraq's time and the time for Iraq's newly elected leaders to take on these responsibilities."

Some Iraqi politicians suggested that the visit could backfire during sensitive negotiations. Similar suggestions were raised in the past weeks about the statements and actions of U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and about the visit this month by Rice and her British counterpart, Jack Straw.

"It would be more appropriate if they would leave us alone," said Mahmoud Othman, a senior Kurdish legislator. "Let us solve our problems by ourselves."

"Enough is enough," said Sheik Mahmoud al-Sudani, a politician affiliated with Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. "Rice's trip to Iraq at this critical time is just another desperate move by the Americans to try to impose themselves on our new government. But they have lost their influence."

The most positive reaction to the visits was evident among Sunni Arab leaders, once among those most offended by the ousting of dictator Saddam Hussein, a fellow Sunni, three years ago.

Americans can help coordinate and speed up the process, "which will benefit everyone," said Azhar Samaraii, a Sunni legislator with the Iraqi Islamic Party.


Rice said U.S. officials were hearing "loud and clear" that the new Iraqi leadership intended to be nonsectarian in its decisions on who will head ministries, particularly interior and defense, which oversee police and armed forces.

"I think they understand ... the importance of appointing ministers and subordinates who have a reputation for technical competence and a mind-set that is nonsectarian," Rice said.

Louise Roug and Paul Richter write for the Los Angeles Times.