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Rice: Iraq not yet capable of defending itself

Condoleezza Rice
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Iraqis still face tough challenges, says Condoleezza Rice.

Some 400 Iraqis killed by insurgents in the past two weeks.
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Condoleezza Rice

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made an unannounced trip to Iraq on Sunday, urging patience for the country's fledgling democratic government and expressing gratitude to American troops. Rice, making her first visit to Iraq as secretary of state, shared her thoughts about her visit with CNN's Senior Baghdad Correspondent Jane Arraf.

RICE: Pleasure to be with you.

ARRAF: Now, you are known as one of the architects of this war and this is your first look at a sovereign Iraqi government. Any surprises?

RICE: It has been really wonderful to be here because after spending every waking hour for quite a long time thinking about Iraq in one way or another, it has been really affirming of what the Iraqi people have achieved here.

They still have a very tough road ahead; there's no doubt about it, but when you look at what they've achieved in just a very short time -- sovereignty was transferred less than a year ago -- I think if you're surprised at anything, it is the tremendous spirit that they have in spite of all of the difficulties that they face.

ARRAF: And still facing a lot of difficulties, political ones, as well. Now, you've said that they need to politically fight this insurgency, as well.

Part of that, of course, is being inclusive. There's a Shia-dominated government that wants nothing to do with Baathists. Should they be more inclusive?

RICE: There's no doubt that there will have to be an inclusive government.

And in fact, I think if you look at what happened after the elections with the formation of this government, this is an inclusive government. It has Sunnis in important positions in the government, and that's really quite important.

Everyone knows that the Sunnis did not participate fully in the electoral process for a variety of reasons. Some of them having to do with just the level of terrorism and insecurity in the regions.

But if there is to be a united Iraq in the future, then Sunnis have to be included in the processes going forward and just as they've been included in this government.

The drafting of the constitution, which is the next step, will need to have a sense of inclusiveness too.

And I found that a message that was already resonating here, although there are lots of discussions going on about how that might be achieved.

ARRAF: Politically, how much time do you think the U.S. has before Iraqi leaders, a sovereign country again, says, perhaps, "Thank you very much, but it's time for U.S. troops to leave"?

RICE: I've found that Iraqi leaders have a similar view of this question as we do, which is that they understand that this young democracy is not yet capable of defending itself.

It's not yet capable of defending itself from internal foes and from the foreign terrorists who are coming across borders to try and prevent the establishment of a democratic Iraq.

So they have multinational forces here. Yes, the bulk of them are American, but there's a coalition here. And the purpose of that coalition is to help them defend themselves, and most importantly to train and equip Iraqis so that they can do the job themselves.

There's no doubt that they're making progress. If you look at the early attempts with the forces, they had some very unsatisfactory performances. But then if you look at the way that they protected election sites, and did that practically without the help of the coalition, the fact that we're now engaged very often in joint operations, and that they're engaged in operations on their own, they've made a lot of progress.

And I find that they have a results-based approach to this question, which is that everyone wants to be able to do the job themselves. But they understand that the multinational force is here, because they're not yet quite capable of doing it.

ARRAF: Now, you are the first senior foreign leader to visit Iraq since the government was formed. We're told that the Iranian foreign minister will be a close second. Are you worried about Iranian influence here?

RICE: Well, Iran is a neighbor. And I would hope that there will be good relations between Iran and Iraq.

But they need to be transparent, neighborly relations, not relations that try somehow to have undue influence in the country through means that are not transparent, but we would hope that Iran will understand the importance of a stable, democratic Iraq.

Iraqis are pretty independent people and I have no belief that the Iraqis intend to trade the terrible, brutal yoke of Saddam Hussein for the leader -- to serve under the mullahs of Iran.

I just don't see that as the future that Iraq sees for itself.

ARRAF: This has been billed as part of the war on terror. But attacks on Americans, terrorist attacks, were up dramatically last year. Dozens of Iraqis are dying almost every day. It's very hard to sell Iraqis on the thought that this is successfully combating terrorism. How do you answer that?

RICE: Well, for many years, we tried to assume that the terrorist threat was going to remain at a low level. Perhaps we could treat it as a kind of law enforcement problem. And then we had the terrorists of September 11th, and it came full blown to our shores.

I think what has happened since then is that we have had the United States and its coalition partners in the war on terrorism really take on the terrorists and say, "You're not going to hide undercover anymore." This is now all-out war against terrorism.

Yes, it has some law enforcement aspects. Yes, it has some aspects of freezing terrorist assets. But it also has aspects that have to do with a future in which there is a different kind of Middle East, a Middle East in which the ideologies of hatred will not be so potent, in which freedom and liberty replace those ideologies of hatred. Because as the president said, the only antidote to that kind of hatred has got to be freedom and liberty.

And Iraq is at the center of the chance for a different kind of Middle East, one in which people have hope, one in which people control their own lives, one in which people believe that their political aspirations can be channeled through legitimate democratic processes. And Iraq is on the front line of that struggle.

It's also an important struggle for the United States and for the rest of us, who are lucky enough to be on the right side of freedom. Because if we've learned anything in European wars and wars in Asia, we've learned that when freedom is on the march, then we are secure. And when freedom is in retreat, we are very vulnerable.

ARRAF: Just to ask you finally, very briefly, reports that the most wanted man in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has been wounded, not caught, but seen recently and wounded.

What's your view on that?

RICE: Well, I've not seen those reports.

I will just say that Zarqawi is clearly a foreign terrorist who is using Iraqi territory in order to frustrate and to abuse the hopes and aspirations of the Iraqi people.

This is someone who clearly fears a democratic Iraq. He's said so much as that. At the time of the elections, Zarqawi's people said, essentially, "If you vote, you will die," because democracy is somehow this foreign concept for Muslims.

Well, I think that the Iraqi people have given an answer to that already, when they went out in large numbers to vote, despite the attempts of the terrorists to intimidate them.

And the people throughout the Middle East are giving an answer to that. Because what's very clear is that there's no corner of the world in which people don't want to be able to say what they think, worship as they please, to be free of the arbitrary secret police knock at your door in the middle of the night.

Now, these are universal values. And so Zarqawi and people like him are fighting an uphill battle, and ultimately they will lose it.

ARRAF: Secretary Rice, thanks so much, and welcome again to Iraq.

RICE: Thank you.

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