U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made an unannounced visit Tuesday to the city that Iraq's Kurds call their Jerusalem, an oil-rich territory claimed by many where the U.S. administration is emphasizing what it sees as new signs of cooperation and progress.
Rice's first stop was to meet with members of a civilian-military reconstruction unit based in Kirkuk and about two dozen provincial politicians of all stripes.
"It is an important province for the future of Iraq, for a democratic Iraq, an Iraq that can be for all people," she said at the start of the meeting with the provincial leaders. She planned to see Iraq's central leadership later Tuesday in Baghdad.
Sunni Arabs ended a yearlong political boycott earlier this month in Kirkuk - the hub of Iraq's northern oil fields - under a deal that sets aside government posts for Arabs. It was the biggest step yet toward unity before a referendum on the area's future.
Rice was highlighting that development, although a separate ethnic group is still boycotting the provincial governing council, and the new role of the United Nations in resolving the future of disputed Kirkuk.
"It truly is the crossing point for every one of Iraq's ethnicities, every one of Iraq's religions and sects," said David Satterfield, Rice's top adviser for Iraq. "Kirkuk is often identified as a flash point for the future of Iraq. We see a logjam being broken here."
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Rice's visit is her first since a surprise joint appearance with U.S. President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates in September, before a report card to Congress on Iraq's progress. The assessment gave disappointing marks to Iraqi political efforts, which remain mired in political squabbling and sectarian maneuvering, and better grades to U.S.-assisted security benchmarks.
Tuesday's visit was meant to underscore an overall reduction in violence that the Bush administration largely attributes to the escalation of U.S. forces that the president ordered a year ago.
Attacks in Iraq are at their lowest levels since the first year of the American invasion in 2003, finally opening a window for reconciliation among rival sects, U.S. Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the No. 2 commander in Iraq, said Sunday.
Kirkuk is an especially coveted city for both the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurdish one in Irbil.
Kurds want to incorporate it into their self-rule area, but the idea has met stiff resistance from Arabs and a constitutionally required referendum on the issue was delayed to next year.
Much of Iraq's vast oil wealth lies under the ground in the region, as well as in the Shiite-controlled south. Kurds refer to Kirkuk as the "Kurdish Jerusalem," and control of the area's oil resources and its cultural attachment to Kurdistan have been hotly contested.
The United Nations sent a special representative to Iraq last month who will help manage competing interests leading up to a referendum now expected in 2008. Iraq's constitution required the referendum by the end of this year.
Satterfield said preparing for the Kirkuk referendum is an example of a job best done by a world body such as the U.N. instead of by the United States.
Turkey and other countries in the region with Kurdish minorities have long feared that Kurdish control of Kirkuk's vast wealth would encourage Kurds toward declaring independence from Iraq - a move that Iraq's neighbors could not tolerate.
Kurds are generally thought to have a slight majority in the province, with Sunni Arabs close behind, though a census has not been conducted in 50 years. Provinces cannot schedule new elections until passage of a law known as the Provincial Powers Act, which is currently mired in Iraq's parliament in Baghdad.
Notably, Rice was not holding a separate meeting with the semiautonomous Kurdish leadership while in Kirkuk. Kurdish leaders have chafed under U.S. demands for greater inclusion in the Baghdad government and swifter work to complete a framework law for managing and distributing Iraq's oil wealth.
The last time Rice visited the region, last year, she held a news conference on a stage decorated with Kurdish flags instead of the Baghdad standard. Kurdish leaders also resented U.S. pressure this fall to do more to hunt rebels who use the territory for cross-border attacks in Turkey.
Iraqi leaders complained Monday that Turkey had not coordinated with Baghdad before sending dozens of warplanes to bomb Kurdish rebel targets in northern Iraq. The target area was in the Kurdish region Rice visited, although some distance from Kirkuk.
Sunday's assault was the largest aerial attack in years against the outlawed separatist group. Turkey's military chief said the strikes used U.S. intelligence, and U.S. officials said Washington was informed of the plan.