BAGHDAD, Iraq – In a surprise visit to Iraq Saturday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Iraqi officials to get an assessment of the Baghdad security plan and to gauge the prospects for reconciliation among the warring factions in Iraq.

Following her meetings, Rice declared herself “impressed” with the steps being taken.

With support waning in the United States for the war effort and for financing future reconstruction of Iraq, the stakes for success by the new Iraqi government couldn’t be higher.

Rice spent some six hours in the highly protected Green Zone meeting with Iraqi officials before heading to Jerusalem.

The two key issues that occupied Rice’s briefings were the security plan in Baghdad, which is underway now, and pending revisions to the Iraqi constitution to give more political and economic clout to Sunnis, who were protected by Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship but who have been excluded since the U.S. invasion.

Following her meeting with Iraqi politicians, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani and Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, Rice said she was “impressed with what we’ve seen thus far of the commitment of the Iraqi leadership to the Baghdad security plan.” She also the plan “even handed.” Sunnis fear that the plan may target them and leave Shiite militias close to the government unchecked.

Rice said the law changes were necessary and are a “proxy for something bigger . . . what is going to be the attitude of the majority force to the minorities.”

Asked if the United States and Iraq had a contingency plan if the security measures were unsuccessful, Rice insisted that the plan needed time to work and that the military would be adjusting its efforts to changes in the streets.

“It’s not going to be one day and everybody can declare victory,” she said. “It’s just going to go on. There are going to be bad days for the security plan when violence is up not down.Thus far I would have to say the performance has been quite good.”

In her meetings with political leaders, Rice urged them to finish the oil law to show the Iraqi people that the government can make a unified decision for the good of a nation not just for a sect or ethnicity.

While both the Kurdish north and Shiite south are oil rich lands, the Sunni regions have little of the resource. The draft law has not been officially presented to the parliament but Rice said she was assured the law was close to being passed.

“It’s a question of, is this going to be a unified country that shares in the resources for all the people?” she said. “I did say to my colleagues that I’ve heard that it’s almost complete before and I hope that this time it is almost complete. As in, complete.”

After some discordant messages about whether the Iranian government was smuggling weapons into Iraq, Rice discounted an accusation in a briefing in Baghdad that the smuggling reached the “highest leadership” of the Iranian government.

“I don’t know at what level of the Iranian government this has been approved or decided,” she said. “It is an activity that is done by an element of the Iranian government so I think the Iranian government has to be held accountable for it.”

Some weapons, mortars as well as a homemade bomb that could pierce armor were discovered and are allegedly made in Iran and smuggled to Shiite militias.

Militias attached to the Shiite-led government are known to be funded by Iran and firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is said to have fled to Iran. He did not attend Friday prayers in Kufa, where he was expected to appear to end the rumors.

Rice said she didn’t know where he was but that “the Iraqi government has undertaken a commitment to deal with the forces of death squads or violent people no matter what side of the religion . . . or who they belong to.”

Earlier this weak Major General William Caldwell, spokesman for Multi-National Force-Iraq, said al-Sadr was in Iran.

Rice also sternly stated that she hoped the Iraqi people appreciated American kindness through reconstruction funding. “The United States gave as a gift to Iraqis 18.6 billion dollars in reconstruction funds,” she said. “A gift. We didn’t ask for a penny of it back. And I hope it’s appreciated that the American people did that.”

Police reports show that the violence had dropped drastically, only five bodies were found throughout the capital – a fraction of the about 40 to 50 corpses usually discovered. But in at least three prior security plans, violence initially dropped before resurging once heighten troop levels dropped.

Brig. General Qassim Moussawi, the spokesman for the general leading the plan, said 50 surface-to-air missiles were confiscated in one of Baghdad’s neighborhoods that could be used to target both civilians and coalition aircraft. In the last month five U.S. Military helicopters were shot down, in at least one case “sophisticated weaponry” was used the U.S. military said.

(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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AP-NY-02-17-07 1923EST

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