BAGHDAD -- During a surprise visit here yesterday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised Iraqi leaders for making progress on several key goals of the troop buildup, including the approval of a controversial new de-Baathification law.
Speaking alongside Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, inside the Green Zone, Rice praised the passage of the law, which is intended to undermine the Sunni Arab-led insurgency and to draw more Sunnis into the political process.
"This law, the accountability and justice law, is clearly a step forward for national reconciliation," Rice said. "It is clearly a step forward for the process of 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."
Iraqi politicians have offered starkly different interpretations of the law. Some leaders said that it would systematize what had been perceived as a partisan purging of former regime elements. Other Iraqi politicians claimed that the law will provide more access to many former Baathists who were shut out of the government jobs, or at least make them eligible for state pensions.
But some hard-line members of Shiite leading parties who supported the law, and minority Sunni political parties who opposed the measure, agree that it will be used to justify further purges of suspected former Baathists from Iraq's most important ministries, including foreign, interior and defense.
And critics of the law said it could have the opposite of its intended effect, exacerbating tensions between Shiites and Sunni Arabs and rekindling sectarian bloodshed after a recent lull in violence.
U.S. officials have been pushing the Iraqi parliament to adopt a new de-Baathification law and billed it as a key benchmark for the U.S. troop buildup. But since its passage Saturday, U.S. officials had been conspicuously tight-lipped about its content as they studied the legislation closely and gauged its political impact in Baghdad.
Rice said the fact that Iraqi politicians had built enough consensus to pass the law was in itself a major accomplishment for the country's fragile democratic process.
"I don't know of any law that has ever been passed that is everything that everybody wants," Rice said. "That's the nature of democracy. The law will be more than some people wanted, it will be less than some people wanted. That's the nature of democratic compromise." Rice and Zebari also addressed another key American goal: a hydrocarbon-sharing law and a resolution on the status of the northern city of Kirkuk.
On Sunday, a broad swath of inter-sectarian and ideological political parties created a coalition to push for more national controls on regional oil resources and condemned a planned popular referendum on the status of Kirkuk, a city regarded by Kurdish leaders as part of the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan.
Zebari, himself a prominent Kurdish leader, said that he wanted to resolve the Kirkuk issue within six months and described the alliance as a positive political development.
"There are new alliances being built and being formed," he said. "I don't think we should be terrified of such political developments. I think it is all healthy."
Earlier yesterday, an eight-vehicle Justice Ministry convoy slammed through a group of children in downtown Baghdad, killing a 9-year-old boy and injuring four others.
The accident caused a chain reaction as soldiers at a nearby checkpoint began firing at the vehicles, hitting their tires. Gunmen traveling in the convoy fired back. One of the children involved in the accident was also shot in the leg, according to witnesses.