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Rice, Straw Pay Surprise Visit To Iraq --> Foreign Secretary Straw (left), Secretary of State Rice (center), and Talabani during their meeting on April 1 (epa) U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw today made a surprise trip to Baghdad to urge Iraqi political leaders to step up efforts to form a unity government.

PRAGUE, April 2, 2006 -- The ministers flew in secretly under tight security from Britain, in a joint effort to move forward Iraqi political talks that have dragged on for months while sectarian violence escalates.

Rice said she and Straw were going to urge Iraqi politicians to quickly wrap up efforts to form a government. The two ministers were due to meet with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, and other leading officials.

Communication Breakdown

The visit came a day after members of al-Ja'fari's own ruling Shi'ite Alliance bloc joined calls for him to step down to improve chances of ending the political paralysis.

Negotiations on a new government have stalled amid Sunni and Kurdish opposition to al-Ja'fari continuing in office for another term.

Rice, in an interview with British television on April 1, admitted that the country has become vulnerable to civil war.
Dozens of Ja'fari supporters took to the streets in Baghdad, holding a mock funeral with a coffin labeled "Democracy."

"Of course it's vulnerable when you have people like [terrorist mastermind Abu Mus'ab al-] Zarqawi trying to stimulate civil war and trying to foment civil war," Rice said. "Of course its vulnerable when its had years of sectarian tension where people settle their differences either by violence or by repression and are now trying to do that by politics and by comprise."

Rice told reporters that the visit is "a sign of the urgency which we attach to a need for a government of national unity."

Concerns Over Violence

U.S. and Iraqi officials say that with the December election already more than three months gone, it's vital to form a unity government to avert all-out war. There's been five weeks of spiraling sectarian bloodshed, and Western diplomats worry that the current political paralysis will fuel more violence.

However, Rice on April 1 reiterated U.S. optimism that Iraq was on course toward democracy.
"The Iraqis are now on a course, a very difficult course toward a more democratic future and that's something that we should celebrate." -- Secretary of State Rice

"But we have to look at the alternative and the alternative is that these people would continue to live in the captivity of a tyrant, that Saddam Hussein would continue to threaten his neighbors and his own people," Rice said. "That period is over and the Iraqis are now on a course, a very difficult course toward a more democratic future and that's something that we should celebrate. Difficult as it is, it is better than the alternative."

Straw has also reaffirmed Britain's commitment to Iraq, but said that more progress was needed.

Death Of Democracy?

On April 1, Shi'ite parties held their latest round of talks on a grand coalition with Kurds and Sunnis, who are adamant in their rejection of al-Ja'fari, who won the Alliance nomination in an internal ballot in February.

Dozens of Ja'fari supporters took to the streets in Baghdad on April 1, holding a mock funeral with a coffin labeled "Democracy."
Sectarian Iraq

Click to enlarge the image.

SUNNI, SHI'A: Iraq is riven along sectarian lines, faults that frequently produce violent clashes and are a constant source of tension. Sectarian concerns drive much of Iraqi politics and are the main threat to the country's fragile security environment.

THE COMPLETE PICTURE: Click on the image to view RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.