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Rice, Straw in surprise Iraq visit

Secretary of state ends tour of England with UK counterpart

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Condoleezza Rice
Jack Straw
Great Britain
Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her counterpart, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, are in Baghdad for a previously unannounced visit aimed at jump-starting the process of forming a national unity government.

Rice and Straw flew into the Iraqi capital Sunday from northwest England, where they had been on a two-day tour.

They plan to meet with Sunni, Shia and Kurdish politicians, who have been stalled in their efforts to form a government following the December 15 parliamentary elections, according to Rice, who spoke to reporters aboard the plane.

"It should be very clear to everyone that the time has come for these negotiations to produce a government of national unity," Rice said. "I think we both understand how hard it is, but the Iraqi people need their government and their leaders."

Straw said that when he visited Iraq five weeks ago, he was assured that a new government would be put together quickly.

"Sadly ... this coalition formation has taken much longer," he said, and cited "significant international concerns" about the delay.

The slow pace of negotiations is believed to be fueling much of Iraq's sectarian violence, and security concerns most likely will be discussed.

Rice and Straw have already held talks with President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd. They also plan to meet with interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite; Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, a Shiite; Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), one of the top Shia parties; and top Sunni leaders from the Tawafuq coalition.

A major stumbling block to the formation of a new government is the choice of a prime minister who can unify the country.

The Shiite-led United Iraqi Alliance, which won the most seats in the elections for the 275-member Council of Representatives, nominated al-Jaafari for the four-year post, but he is opposed by Kurds and the Sunni-led Iraqi Accord Front.

Any choice for prime minister must win approval from the parliament.

Opposition to al-Jaafari has been growing, and the Shiite coalition is being pressured to reconsider its decision. Political leaders are trying to agree on an acceptable candidate before a legislative vote is taken.

Rice praised Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential Shiite cleric in Iraq, calling him "a voice of reason at difficult times for the Iraqi people, someone who has urged unity in the country."

Asked whether the United States and Britain are losing patience with the Iraqis, Straw cited the huge financial investment and loss of lives by both countries in trying trying to mold a democratic Iraq.

"We're committed to Iraq," Straw said. "Very committed. But we need to see progress. While Rice declined to set a deadline for Iraqis to form a government, she said, "the fact that we're going out to have these discussions with the leadership is a sign of the urgency which we attach to a need for a government."

Rice and Straw landed at the Baghdad airport about 10:30 a.m. (2:30 a.m. ET) during a heavy rainstorm. There was no mention of how long they would remain in Iraq.

The secretary of state spent the past two days touring Liverpool and Blackburn, where Straw is the member of Parliament. Rice had been expected to fly to Washington on Sunday.

During her visit to Britain, Rice was dogged by protesters angry over U.S. policies in Iraq and other issues.

On Saturday, about 300 protesters -- most of them upset about the war in Iraq -- and two dozen supporters greeted Rice outside the town hall in Blackburn.

The two later faced reporters after attending a multi-faith service at Blackburn Cathedral and meeting with the city's Muslim leaders. About 20 percent of Blackburn's population is Muslim.

In a speech Friday at an event organized by the Chatham House think tank, Rice said, "I am quite certain there are going to be dissertations written about the mistakes of the Bush administration."

"I know we've made tactical errors, thousands of them, I'm sure," she said. "But when you look back in history what will be judged on is" whether the "right strategic decision" was made.

On Saturday, a reporter asked Rice to give examples of the mistakes.

"First of all, I meant it figuratively, not literally. Let me be very clear about that. I wasn't sitting around counting," she replied. "The point I was making to the questioner ... is that, of course, if you've ever made decisions, you've undoubtedly made mistakes.

"The important thing is to get the big strategic decisions right, and that I am confident that the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein and give the Iraqi people an opportunity for peace and for democracy is the right decision."

"The other point I was making to the questioner is that I'm enough of a historian to know that things that looked brilliant at the moment turn out in historical perspective to be mistakes, and the things that look like mistakes turn out to have been right decisions."

Rice denied that protesters had drowned out her messages, and repeated that the right to protest is fundamental in a democracy.

"Indeed, I've been very warmly welcomed. I've also noticed the people waving along the streets, I've noticed the considerable gathering of people from Blackburn, just on the other side of the demonstrations. I'm hearing their voices equally clearly and equally well," she said.

Straw also played down the demonstrations, including one in Liverpool on Friday night that drew about 1,500 outside the city's Philharmonic Concert Hall.

A singer at the concert dedicated a song to the demonstrators, sang John Lennon's "Imagine" and gave an impromptu rendition of his "Give Peace A Chance."

"I'm not embarrassed in the least," Straw said of the demonstrations.

He drew laughter from the reporters when he added, "as for the size of the crowds, I've been on plenty of demonstrations in my life -- well maybe a few years ago -- but I've not forgotten what is a big crowd and what is a small crowd -- and that was not a big crowd" in Liverpool.

Rice arrived Thursday in England from Berlin, where she met with ministers representing the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. They discussed a presidential statement from the council calling on Iran to comply with the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency.

Rice also stopped briefly in Paris to meet with French President Jacques Chirac.

Her visit to Liverpool and Blackburn was billed as an opportunity for Rice and Straw to demonstrate how U.S. foreign policy directly affects British citizens. It follows a visit by Straw to Rice's home state of Alabama in October, where she gave him a high-profile taste of life in the Deep South.

-- CNN State Department Producer Elise Labott and Senior International Correspondent Nic Robertson contributed to this report

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