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Diplomatic Double-Teaming On Iraq

CBS News reporter Charles Wolfson is a former Tel Aviv bureau chief for CBS News, who now covers the State Department.

What was supposed to be a couple of days in northwest England visiting the home district of British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw became a diplomatic tripleheader for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. During almost a week on the road, Rice took time to see the sights in and around Liverpool, but she also worked in much more serious diplomatic meetings on Iran and Iraq while she was away from Washington.

Rice began her trip with a stop in Berlin, where she met other senior ministers from Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany to talk about what steps to take next if Iran does not comply with a new United Nations call for it to halt its nuclear arms program within the next 30 days. Most U.S. and European officials do not believe the Iranian regime will move to satisfy the new U.N. demands, so Rice and her colleagues started discussions on ways to exert more pressure on Iranian leaders.

Rice's stop in Liverpool was a couple of days of easy personal diplomacy. She visited some of the local sights (although not the museum honoring the Beatles, the city's best-known export by far) and met with civic leaders, school kids and aircraft factory workers. Straw, who had to endure watching a University of Alabama football game when he visited Birmingham, Ala., last fall, was especially eager to have Rice watch a game with his favorite soccer team, the Blackburn Rovers. Alas, scheduling problems prevented that, so she had to settle for meeting several players and seeing the Rovers' home field, Ewood Park.

Rice and her host also had to put up with some noisy anti-war demonstrators at various stops because many of the locals oppose the American and British governments' position on the Iraq war. The demonstrators never really got out of hand, and both officials were quick to say it was perfectly OK for people to express their viewpoints — even if those viewpoints are causing political pressure for the Blair and Bush administrations.

Rice and Straw have developed a close working relationship out of necessity because their governments are tied together on many major policy areas, including Iraq, Iran and the Israel-Palestinian issue.

At the end of Rice's visit in Liverpool came a surprise: She and Straw would go together for an unannounced 24-hour trip to Baghdad. They were being sent to Iraq by their leaders to break a political logjam over which Iraqi politician would become prime minister in a new government of national unity. To maintain the secret, Straw furtively came aboard Rice's plane via the back stairway. Cameras were not permitted cover the departure.

Given the dicey security situation in Baghdad, the American Secretary of State doesn't just drop in from time to time to check on things. Trips are always hush-hush, never publicly announced in advance and, when she is in Baghdad, the Secretary of State's meetings are held only inside the relatively secure Green Zone, where the U.S. embassy and Iraqi government offices are located.

With Mr. Bush taking increasing political heat for the rising costs of the war — in terms of casualties and dollars — Rice's mission was clear: Tell all the senior leaders in Baghdad that the time for political bargaining was running out, along with American and British patience.

If Rice and Straw didn't exactly come to town to anoint their own candidate to lead a new government, they certainly left Baghdad telling everyone that it was time for the process of government formation to come to an end. Both repeatedly said they didn't care who led the next government — but that it was time for the Iraqis to pick someone who could actually put a government together. The sooner that was done, of course, the sooner everyone could get on with the process of stabilizing Iraq and building up local security and police forces to take on the job of defeating the insurgents who continue to cause chaos and instability.

While Ibrahim Ja'afari, a Shiite political leader got the most votes (by a margin of one) to become the next prime minister, he has been unable to put together a coalition government, thus creating the logjam that's been blocking political progress for several months. The visiting ministers came to see him and other leaders hoping to get Ja'afari to step aside in favor of some other Shia politician. Officials familiar with the talks said Ja'afari was told to take a look at the numbers again and he'd realize he didn't have enough national support to form the next government — or so it is hoped. One senior U.S. official said he didn't expect Ja'afari to step down on his own, but hoped other Shia leaders would be able to persuade him to do so.

The goal, of course, is to ease the political pressures on Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair by getting American and British forces home as soon as possible. Curiously, a metaphor that could easily be applied to the Rice-Straw mission to Baghdad was actually spelled out earlier in the trip at the unlikeliest of places. As the two senior diplomats were touring the Blackburn Rovers' locker room, they might have taken notice of the message carried on a banner painted across one wall. The slogan in its athletic context is easily transferable to the Iraqi situation. It read simply: "We're all in this together."

Charles M. Wolfson