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In Iraq, Rice renews call for reconciliation

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  • NEW: Baghdad announced stepped-up security for eight-day holiday period
  • Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice makes unannounced visit to Iraq
  • Rice visits oil-rich, ethnically diverse northern Iraq city of Kirkuk
  • Kirkuk is center of power struggle among Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday that improvements in security in Iraq have provided a window of opportunity in which political reconciliation should take place.

Condoleezza Rice, left, shakes hands with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari in Baghdad on Tuesday.

"There has been progress made here," Rice said at a Baghdad news conference during an unannounced visit to Iraq.

"One reason that I am more hopeful being here today, at the end of 2007, than perhaps a year or so ago is that these improvements do show that Iraqis can count on a future with this democracy, a future in which violence is not necessarily a daily way of life," she said. "But it's going to take a really large effort by these political leaders to push forward."

Rice appeared with her Iraqi counterpart, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. She planned to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

The trip to Iraq is Rice's first since she traveled to Anbar province in September with President Bush.

It came as Turkish troops crossed into Iraq to attack Kurdish separatist rebels, a conflict that the United States, the Iraqi government and the Kurdish Regional Government does not want to spiral out of control.

Before going to Baghdad, Rice dropped in on the volatile northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, a U.S. Embassy spokesman in Baghdad confirmed.

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In Kirkuk, Rice met with members of a civilian-military reconstruction unit and with provincial politicians from various blocs, according to The Associated Press.

"It is an important province for the future of Iraq, for a democratic Iraq, an Iraq that can be for all people," she said, according to AP.

Kirkuk, an oil-rich city in northern Iraq's Tameem province, has been plagued by ethnic tension for years, with the largest groups -- Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens -- vying for power.

More than 6 percent of the world's oil comes from the Kirkuk region, and the immense oil wealth adds urgency to efforts to promote compromise and reconciliation in Kirkuk and the surrounding region.

During the Saddam Hussein era, Kurds were ousted from the region and Hussein relocated Arabs into Kirkuk to bolster the central government's control, a policy called "Arabization."

In the aftermath of the Hussein regime, Kurds reasserted themselves in the region, which they regard as historically part of Kurdistan. The Kirkuk region has been described as a Kurdish "Jerusalem" -- as important to Kurdish national aspirations as Jerusalem is to Jews and Arabs.

According to Iraq's constitution, residents of Tameem province must hold a referendum on whether to join Iraq's Kurdish Regional Government, which now administers three provinces -- Duhuk, Sulaimaniya and Irbil.

That referendum was supposed to occur by the end of the year, but officials now think it will be another six months before the vote.

Before it can be held, the government will have to determine just where Tameem province begins and ends, and then update voter rolls.

Also, the city must first complete what's called "normalization," a process meant to reverse "Arabization."

Kurds who were forced out of the city are being offered roughly $8,000 to return, and Arabs who were brought in by the Baathist government are offered nearly $16,000 to return to their villages in the south.

Meanwhile, authorities announced stiff security measures in Baghdad over the next eight days during the Eid al-Adha holiday, the period corresponding with the end of the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.

The Muslim holiday customarily lasts three to four days. But the holiday period will extend longer in Baghdad according to government decree -- from this Tuesday to next Tuesday, which is Christmas Day.

The extended holiday is designed to accommodate Sunni and Shiite Muslim celebrations of Eid, as well as those Iraqis who celebrate the Christmas period.

Iraqi security forces backed by coalition troops are bolstering their protection of shrines, mosques, parks, public places, markets and commercial areas.

Cars are banned from parking on roadsides near parks and crowded places, and residents are warned to be on the alert for the "possibility of plans to disrupt the atmosphere of joy and happiness."

On Tuesday, a parked car bomb in central Baghdad killed at least four Iraqis and wounded eight others, an Interior Ministry official said. The dead included two police officers.

Two roadside bombings were reported as well, both in western Baghdad. One wounded four people, including three Iraqi soldiers. Another exploded near the Syrian Embassy in the Mansour neighborhood, but no casualties were reported.

At least 13 people were killed in a cafe near the city of Baquba on Tuesday when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest, Baquba police said.

The bombing wounded more than 20 others in the town of Abarra, police said.

Earlier on Tuesday, a car bombing in Baquba killed at least one Iraqi policeman and wounded seven other people, including two policemen, police said. A roadside bomb killed four civilians and wounded 24 others on Monday night in Balad Ruz, east of Baquba. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Morgan Neill and Jomana Karadsheh contributed to this report.

Copyright 2007 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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