US major stabilizing force for Mideast – Rice


Baghdad : Visiting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said here that her country was a leading stabilizing force in the Middle East.

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Iraq, for its part, should prove to its neighbours that it is a peaceful country, she asserted in a joint press conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari Tuesday.

However, the national reconciliation in Iraq did not move forward as fast as the US had wished despite the noticeable improvement of the security situation following the deployment of additional forces, she noted.

Iraq’s parliament voted on Saturday for a law to let thousands of members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party return to government jobs, the first of a batch of what Washington has called benchmark reconciliation laws to be passed.

“This law (on accountability and justice) is clearly a step forward for national reconciliation, it is clearly a step forward for the process of healing the wounds of the past,” Rice said.

She made the remarks following a series of meetings with Iraqi leaders including President Jalal Talabani, Vice Presidents Tarek Al-Hashemi and Adel Abdul-Mahdi, and Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki as well as President of semi-automomous region of Kurdistan Massoud Barzani.

Rice, meanwhile, pushed for endorsement of other laws including the bill on oil wealth and the pension bill which are key steps for national reconciliation in Iraq. “Yes, there is still a lot of work to be done. I talked with the leaders today about a provincial powers law, about the need for provincial elections, we talked about the need for a hydrocarbons law,” she said.

“While it has not always moved as fast as some of us sitting in Washington would like, it has certainly moved,” she said.

Maliki’s government faced a setback late last year with the withdrawal of the main Sunni Arab bloc as well as ministers loyal to anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

The stalled political progress came at a time when significant security improvements were being made after the US military dispatched the extra 30,000 US troops into Iraq.

Rice hailed the security improvement and the cooperation of the Iraqi citizens in “the war against terrorism.” The Iraqi grassroots showed determination to get more involved in the war against terrorism and foreign terrorists, she noted.

On the withdrawal of US troops, Rice said she told Maliki that Bush wanted to go ahead with a gradual troop withdrawal of 20,000 to 30,000 troops by mid 2008. “President Bush said we were on the right track to reduce the troops in Iraq,” she asserted.

As for the long-term security agreement between Iraq and the US known as Declaration of Principles, Rice said the document did not only concern the security relations between the two countries but also the security of the Gulf region as a whole.

“A united, stable and democratic Iraq will serve the stability of the whole region,” she underscored.

The United States and Iraq seek economic, political and cultural partnership, she added, reasserting that her country has been a major stabilizing force in the region for long decades.

For his part, Zebari expressed his country’s desire to see more involvement of the Arab countries and the Arab League in the political process of his country, given the recent security improvements.

“The US-Iraqi Declaration of Principle is a transparent deal that concerns all citizens. We have briefed the Arab countries on its items,” he said.

“The Iraqi parliament has the final say on the document,” the minister added, pointing out that the leaders of the major political powers backed the deal.

“The United States is a strategic ally for Iraq and the two countries will remain so for a long time,” he added.

Rice had been accompanying President George W. Bush in his tour of Middle East countries ahead of breaking away for a visit to Iraq while Bush went to Saudi Arabia.