BAGHDAD, Iraq -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise visit to Baghdad yesterday and urged Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish politicians to use a lull in violence resulting from a new security plan to reach long-delayed agreement on key political issues.
Her visit came as the much-vaunted plan, dubbed "Enforcing the Law," gets under way in Iraq's capital. An Iraqi military spokesman said attacks had already dropped significantly and that many fewer bodies were being brought to the morgue.
"How the Iraqis use the breathing space that [the plan] might provide is what's really important," Rice said during her half-day visit to Baghdad's heavily protected Green Zone. She said that Iraqi security forces were "off to a good start" but that it was still early.
"There are going to be bad days for the Baghdad security plan, when violence is up - not down," she said. "The real test will be steering a steady course."
While Baghdad has appeared calmer, attackers have hit elsewhere in the country. Yesterday, bombers attacked in Kirkuk, killing six people and wounding 75 others.
The attack in Kirkuk highlights the challenge faced by American and Iraqi forces. Even as troops fan out across the capital, sweeping neighborhoods for weapons, rebels and militias, attackers have struck in other strategic places.
High-ranking Iraqi military officials have noted recently a significant increase in attacks in and around Kirkuk. Iraqi and American officials fear that al-Qaida-linked groups could spark civil war in Kirkuk, much as they have done in Baghdad.
Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen all want control of the city and the surrounding region. At stake are land, water and some of Iraq's richest oil reserves.
In Baghdad, a crackdown that eventually will involve as many as 27,000 additional American and Iraqi troops began on Wednesday. Despite opposition among voters and in Congress to President Bush's plans to send more troops to Iraq, at least 5,000 more U.S. and Iraqi troops have joined the thousands patrolling the streets of the capital.
The House of Representatives passed a nonbinding resolution Friday opposing Bush's plan to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq. Republicans blocked an effort to pass an identical resolution yesterday in the Senate.
Brig. Gen. Qasim Mousawi, an Iraqi military spokesman, said that violence and crime had decreased more than 80 percent and that at least 144 people had been detained in sweeps over the past three days.
A statement from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office said the plan has also resulted in the return of 107 families to their homes. As many as 50,000 Iraqis are forced from their homes every month, joining 3.8 million others who have sought refuge either elsewhere in the country or in neighboring states, according to the United Nations.
Yesterday, Rice met with al-Maliki, a Shiite; President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd; Vice President Tariq Hashemi, a Sunni; and others.
Iraq's religious and ethnic groups have been unable to agree for months on one of the most fundamental issues: how to share the country's oil resources. Lawmakers have also bickered over how to deal with one-time members of former President Saddam Hussein's Baath party.
Rice said U.S. commanders have told her that Iraqi units in the Baghdad operation are at as much as 90 percent of full troop strength, much better than initial reports that they were at only about half-strength.
But she reiterated that political progress will have to accompany any military advances.
In a 10-minute address in the Green Zone, Rice urged hundreds of American troops and U.S. Embassy officials to be patient, saying they were engaged in a "noble cause."
"When you see Iraqis toiling and squabbling and struggling," she said, "remember it's not easy to build a democracy."
But she also said the Bush administration doesn't have unlimited patience.
"The United States is investing a great deal, most especially the lives of our men and women in uniform, and the American people want to see results and aren't prepared to wait forever," she said.
After meeting with the Iraqi politicians and Western journalists, Rice flew by helicopter from the Green Zone to another U.S. military base where she met Gen. David Petraeus, the new U.S. commander who will oversee the Baghdad security plan.
Louise Roug writes for the Los Angeles Times.