From: Reuters
Published April 20, 2008 06:28 AM

Secretary of State Rice lands in Iraq

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made an unannounced visit to Iraq on Sunday, a day after anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr threatened to declare "open war" on the Iraqi government.

"I can confirm that Secretary Rice is in Iraq," a U.S. embassy spokesman said.

A rebellion by Sadr's Mehdi Army militia -- which has tens of thousands of fighters -- could abruptly end a period of lower violence at a time when U.S. forces are starting to leave Iraq.

Rice is in the Middle East to attend conferences in Gulf states, including a meeting in Kuwait on Tuesday that will involve Iraq and its neighbors.

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The threat of a full-scale uprising by Sadr sharply raises the stakes in the cleric's confrontation with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has threatened to ban Sadr's movement from political life unless he disbands his militia.

The U.S. military says a truce Sadr imposed on his militia last August has played a key role in helping cut violence across Iraq. The militia, besides attacking on U.S. and Iraqi forces, had also been accused of stoking sectarian bloodshed.

The ceasefire has come under increasing strain since Maliki launched a crackdown on militias in the southern city of Basra late last month. The operation sparked major battles with the Mehdi Army in Basra, other southern cities and also Baghdad.

While fighting has eased in the south, clashes have raged in the cleric's stronghold of Sadr City in eastern Baghdad.

Earlier on Sunday Rice called on Arab nations to offer diplomatic ties and debt relief to Iraq's government to reward its efforts on improving security and political reconciliation. She is expected to press this request at the Kuwait meeting.

(Reporting by Peter Graff; Editing by Dean Yates)

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