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Rice: Differences can be strength in Iraq
Updated: 2005-11-11 23:33

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice invited Sunni Arabs to speak their minds in new voting in Iraq, arguing during a surprise visit Friday that "differences can be a strength."

Sectarian and ethnic rivalries fuel the daily violence and bloodshed in Iraq, and have threatened to derail a U.S.-backed roadmap for establishing democracy. Elections Dec. 15 for a permanent government are the latest test of Iraq's new representative system, and another marker toward the day when U.S. forces and advisers may be able to quit the country.

"We do support the principles of democracy and support efforts to bridge the differences among Iraqis," Rice said following a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

Divisions "may be differences of history or tradition, culture or ethnicity, but in a democratic process these differences can be a strength rather than a handicap," she said.

Rice sounded cool to a proposed reconciliation conference organized by the Arab League. Politicians from Iraq's Shiite, Kurdish, Sunni and other factions are invited to a preparatory meeting in Cairo on Nov. 19 and a larger conference sometime later.

Some Shiites have said they will boycott if members of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's regime or political base are included, and there are other controversies about who should attend

Rice said such overtures should be Iraq's to make.

"I would hope that those who participate in the Arab League conference would recognize they are participating with an Iraqi government that has been elected," she said. "The lead on this really ought to be the Iraqi government."

The secretary arrived on her unannounced visit earlier at a military airport and rode by helicopter to U.S. base, flying over sheep grazing next to the roofless shells of bombed-out buildings and houses.
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