Democracy in Iraq 'promising but fragile,' Rice says

BAGHDAD -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, making an unannounced visit Tuesday, called Iraq's future "promising but still fragile."

"I think people know a democratic and unified Iraq is here to stay," Rice said at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs near the fortified Green Zone, where the U.S. Embassy is.

Her talks with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari followed passage of legislation Saturday by the Iraqi parliament allowing some former Baath Party members to return to civil service jobs or receive their pensions. After the bill passed, there were signs that Sunni Muslim ministers might rejoin the Shiite Muslim-led administration.

Rice praised the legislation as a step toward national unification. Nearly five years ago, after the U.S.-led invasion, the U.S.-governed Coalition Provisional Authority passed an order barring tens of thousands of members of toppled dictator Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from civil service, military and other government jobs.

On Monday, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni, indicated that members of the Sunni Accordance Front, which he leads, might return to the government. The group quit the government in August, weakening al-Maliki's leadership and attempts to further unify the nation.

"The front is ready to go back to its seats, but we are waiting for what the government will accept from the demands the front made," al-Hashemi said, according to his Web site.

Those demands include the release of those jailed without charges or conviction and the guarantee of more Sunni participation in the government.

Al-Hashemi and al-Maliki met late Monday and discussed ways to cooperate better, said Sadiq al-Rikabi, a top adviser to the prime minister.