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Rice in Iraq to push political reconciliation

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  • NEW: Condoleezza Rice, Iraqi leaders confer on progress between Iraqi factions
  • NEW: Rice praises law easing restrictions on Baath Party members
  • Rice's visit unannounced; she had been in Saudi Arabia with President Bush
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(CNN) -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and other senior leaders Tuesday on an unannounced visit to Iraq, the White House said.

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Condoleezza Rice meets Tuesday with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, right, to discuss political progress.

Rice planned to press Iraqi leaders for more progress on political reconciliation between the country's many factions, an official with the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said.

Rice and al-Maliki discussed the development of Iraq's political process, an adviser in the prime minister's office said.

In addition, the spokesman said, Rice briefed al-Maliki about President Bush's visit to the Middle East as it concerns Iraq.

Rice has been traveling with Bush, who was in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday.

According to his office, al-Maliki told Rice the government is trying to improve Iraq's economy, infrastructure and basic services, and is working hard to implement democratic foundations that promote political reconciliation and develop foreign policy in the post-Saddam Hussein era.

In addition, Rice congratulated the prime minister on the Iraqi parliament's passage of a measure easing restrictions on former members of Hussein's Baath Party.

That development also drew praise Monday from top U.S. officials in Iraq.

"It is clear that the law passed on January 12 sends a message to the people of Iraq and throughout the region that Iraqi political leaders are working together to build a state that will be inclusive and tolerant and wants to look to the future rather than dwell on the past," Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, said in a statement issued by the U.S. Embassy.

Allowing low-ranking members of Hussein's ruling party to return to public jobs was among the benchmarks toward national reconciliation that Bush laid out a year ago when he ordered an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Iraq.

The bill that passed Iraq's Council of Representatives on Saturday still bars senior Baathist leaders involved in implementing Hussein's oppressive policies from government jobs, but former low-level Baathists not implicated in crimes could take advantage of the change. Video Watch how the law may be a major breakthrough »

"Passage of this law represents a signal achievement in that Iraqi political leaders have collectively chosen to reform a de-Baathification process that many regarded as flawed, unfair and a roadblock to reconciliation," the embassy statement read.

"This is an Iraqi law, formulated by Iraqi leaders, that addresses uniquely Iraqi issues."

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani must sign the law before it takes effect, and Petraeus and Crocker said its impact will depend on how it's implemented.

Tens of thousands of Baath Party members, most of them low-level officials or public employees such as schoolteachers, were thrown out of work by the U.S.-led occupation government after the invasion in 2003. Some then joined the insurgency against U.S. troops in Iraq's Sunni Muslim heartland.

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After elections that brought the country's Shiite majority to power, hard-line Shiite politicians stalled efforts to ease that ban for months, demanding that it include measures to compensate victims of Hussein's regime.

Bush has hailed the bill as "an important step toward reconciliation." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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