US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday praised "remarkable" political progress in Iraq, saying during a surprise visit to Baghdad that it represented a time of hope for the country.
"Iraq is moving forward in a way that is promising but still fragile," Rice told reporters after talks with Iraq's leaders.
"This is a time of hope," she said, pointing to a key law passed by parliament at the weekend that will allow former middle-ranking members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party to return to public life.
Passage of the law was one of 18 "benchmarks" Washington had set as measures of political reconciliation in deeply divided Iraq.
"Passing the Justice and Accountability Law is a good step on the road to reconciliation," Rice told a news conference with her Iraqi counterpart, Hoshyar Zebari, in Baghdad's highly fortified Green Zone.
She added, however, that there was "still a lot of work to be done", pointing to the need for provincial elections and the fact that a national oil and gas bill is still stalled in parliament.
"While it hasn't always moved as fast as some of us sitting in Washington would have liked, it has certainly moved. Given the history and legacy and the stains of tyranny it has been quite remarkable.
"She said that since her last visit to Iraq a month ago, she had seen "continued progress on the political front, particularly in the reconciliation that the Iraqi people themselves are carrying out at the grassroots front."
Rice said the "citizens' determination to fight the extremists, the terrorists, the foreign fighters" was cause for optimism.
"I have also had discussions with the national leadership in my time here, and there seems to be a spirit of cooperation to move forward at the national front as well," she said.
Zebari said Rice's one-day visit was "very significant".
"It comes at a time when there are very positive developments on the security and political fronts in Iraq as well as in the region," he said.
Washington's top envoy broke away from a Middle East tour with US president George W. Bush, arriving in the Iraqi capital mid-morning from neighbouring Saudi Arabia.
"Bush and secretary Rice decided this would be a good opportunity for the secretary to go to Baghdad to meet with Iraqi officials to build on progress made and to encourage additional political reconciliation and legislative action," US national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe told reporters in Riyadh.
On her arrival, Rice went straight into talks with Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki that, according to Maliki's office, were dominated by discussions on political and security progress in Iraq.
Maliki, a statement said, told her his government was now focusing its efforts on boosting the Iraqi economy and on reconstruction efforts, and building on the security and political achievements of the past months.
Rice, for her part, renewed US support for the Iraqi government "and its efforts to achieve security, stability and prosperity for all Iraqi people".
Government spokesman Ali Al-Dabbagh said Rice had also told the prime minister that Bush planned to push ahead with plans for a withdrawal of around 30,000 US troops by July.
Al-Dabbagh added that Iraq would be ready to take control of all 18 provinces by the end of 2008. US-led forces have so far handed back nine provinces to Iraqi control.
During the news conference, Rice made it clear that the US would be in the country for the long haul.
"We look forward to a relationship with Iraq in the long-term as befitting between friends who have sacrificed together to bring into being a democratic Iraq and contributing to the stability of Iraq and therefore contributing to the stability of this whole region," she said.For all the latest business news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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