Rice praises Iraq progress

( AP ) - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said during a surprise trip to Iraq Tuesday that national reconciliation has moved along "quite remarkably," citing a new law that lets former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party to reclaim government jobs or pensions.

Rice, who split off from President Bush's Mideast tour for the visit to Baghdad, said the Iraqi parliament's approval of the U.S.-sought benchmark law Saturday was a first step and showed that last year's "surge" of American forces was paying dividends.

Rice left Riyadh, the Saudi capital, to personally convey Bush's encouragement about signs of progress in Baghdad and decided that she could "help push the momentum by her very presence."

She congratulated the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, on the passage of the so-called de-Baathification legislation reinstating thousands of former Saddam Hussein loyalists to government jobs and pushing for progress on other benchmark laws.

Bush said he would not go to Iraq while traveling in the region. There had been widespread speculation he would make a visit.

"President Bush and Secretary Rice decided this would be a good opportunity for the secretary to go to Baghdad to meet with Iraqi officials to build on progress made and to encourage additional political reconciliation and legislative action," National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

Rice met with al-Maliki and spoke to reporters at the side of Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.

Ali al-Dabbagh, al-Maliki's spokesman, said Rice and the prime minister met for about 45 minutes, of which 30 minutes were one-on-one. He said she also briefed him on Bush's trip.

The de-Baathification law is one of 18 steps which the United States considers benchmarks to promoting reconciliation among the country's Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.

A senior aide to al-Maliki said Rice also encouraged the prime minister to promote the progress of the other benchmark legislation, including provincial elections, constitutional amendments and a law to share the country's oil and gas resources among the different sects.

On Saturday, Bush had commended Iraq's parliament for the de-Baathification law's passage.

"It's an important step toward reconciliation," Bush said then, after more than a year of prodding by the U.S. for action on the law. "It's an important sign that the leaders of that country understand that they must work together to meet the aspirations of the Iraqi people."

At the same time, Bush said more progress was needed.

Meanwhile, a fire broke out early Tuesday in a major oil refinery in the southern city of Basra, the Iraqi oil ministry said. Four workers suffered burn injuries.

Iraqi Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahristani said a preliminary investigation results showed that a U.S. helicopter hovering over the refinery was to blame.

"This is what caused the fire and led to the leakage of a huge amount of liquid gas as the blaze hit the gas production unit," al-Shahristani said in a statement. He added that his ministry "had warned many times against aircraft flying above oil institutions and especially refineries."

It was not clear how the helicopter's presence caused the fire, though aircraft often release flares to ward off ground attacks.

The fire at the Shuaiba refinery started at 7 a.m. "due to an explosion," said Assem Jihad, the Oil Ministry spokesman.

"Firefighters and technical teams have controlled the fire, which hit the gas unit," Jihad told The Associated Press. Production was continuing.

Basra, where about 80 percent of Iraq's oil reserves are located, is Iraq's second-largest city, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad.

The Shuaiba refinery, on the southern outskirts of Basra, has a capacity of 160,000 barrels per day but has been functioning below capacity at about 100,000 bpd.

Last week, a technical fault in a production unit sparked two fires in the country's largest oil refinery in the northern town of Beiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad.

An engineer was killed and 10 workers suffered burns in those fires.

Iraq's three main oil refineries, Beiji, Shuaiba and Dora in Baghdad - are running at roughly half their capacity, processing a total of about 350,000 bpd, compared to about 700,000 before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

The shortfall has forced Iraq to turn to imports of oil products such as gasoline and kerosene from neighbors Iran, Kuwait and Turkey. Iraq, the holder of the world's third-largest crude oil reserves with an estimated 115 billion barrels, aims to boost crude production to 3 million bpd by the end of this year.

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