BAGHDAD (AP) _ Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made an unannounced visit Tuesday to Kirkuk in the oil-rich Kurdish region, where the U.S. administration has emphasized what it sees as new signs of cooperation and progress, and then flew to the Iraqi capital for meetings with national leaders.
At Rice's first stop in Kirkuk, she met with members of a civilian-military reconstruction unit and with about two-dozen provincial politicians of all stripes.
``It is an important province for the future of Iraq, for a democratic Iraq, an Iraq that can be for all people,'' she said at the start of the meeting with the provincial leaders.
Sunni Arabs ended a yearlong political boycott earlier this month in Kirkuk _ the hub of Iraq's northern oil fields _ under a deal that sets aside government posts for Arabs. It was the biggest step yet toward unity ahead of a referendum on the area's future.
Rice was highlighting that development, although a separate ethnic group is still boycotting the provincial governing council, and the new role of the United Nations in resolving the future of disputed Kirkuk.
``It truly is the crossing point for every one of Iraq's ethnicities, every one of Iraq's religions and sects,'' said David Satterfield, Rice's top adviser for Iraq. ``Kirkuk is often identified as a flashpoint for the future of Iraq.''
Rice's visit is her first since a surprise joint appearance with Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates in September, ahead of a report card to Congress on Iraq's progress. The assessment gave disappointing marks to Iraqi political efforts, which remain mired in political squabbling and sectarian maneuvering, and better grades to U.S.-assisted security benchmarks.
In Baghdad, Rice was meeting the vice president, Jalal Talibani, and numerous other leaders. A meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was scheduled, and Rice was to see the new U.N. special representative in Iraq.
The U.N. representative, who arrived last month, represents an expanded role for the U.N. He is to help manage competing interests leading up to the Kirkuk referendum expected in the latter half of 2008. Iraq's constitution required the referendum by the end of this year.
Satterfield said preparing for the Kirkuk referendum is an example of a job best done by a world body such as the U.N. instead of by the United States.
Turkey and other countries in the region with Kurdish minorities have long feared that Kurdish control of Kirkuk's vast wealth would encourage Kurds toward declaring independence from Iraq _ a move that Iraq's neighbors could not tolerate.
Kurds are generally thought to have a slight majority in the province, with Sunni Arabs close behind, though a census has not been conducted in 50 years. Provinces cannot schedule new elections until passage of a law known as the Provincial Powers Act, which is currently mired in Iraq's parliament in Baghdad.
Tuesday's visit was meant to underscore an overall reduction in violence that the Bush administration largely attributes to the escalation of U.S. forces Bush ordered a year ago.
Attacks in Iraq are at their lowest levels since the first year of the American invasion in 2003, finally opening a window for reconciliation among rival sects, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the No. 2 commander in Iraq, said Sunday.
There are fresh threats, however. The Turkish army sent 300 soldiers about 1.5 miles into northern Iraq in an overnight operation on Tuesday, Kurdish officials said. Turkey says it must cross the border to pursue Kurdish rebels who use the border region to attack Turkey. Iraq's government objects and the United States has stood between the allies for months.
Iraqi leaders had complained Monday that Turkey had not coordinated with Baghdad before sending dozens of warplanes to bomb Kurdish rebel targets in a larger operation in northern Iraq on Sunday. The target area is in the Kurdish-controlled region north of Kirkuk.
Sunday's assault was the largest aerial attack in years against the outlawed separatist group. Turkey's military chief said the strikes used U.S. intelligence, and U.S. officials said Washington was informed of the plan.
Kirkuk is an especially coveted city for both the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurdish one in Irbil.
Kurds want to incorporate it into their self-rule area, but the idea has met stiff resistance from Arabs.
Much of Iraq's vast oil wealth lies under the ground in the region, as well as in the Shiite-controlled south. Apart from the petrodollars, Kurds have a strong cultural and emotional attachment to the area and consider Kirkuk, which they call ``the Kurdish Jerusalem,'' part of their ancestral homeland.
Rice did not hold a separate meeting with the semiautonomous Kurdish leadership while in Kirkuk. Kurdish leaders have chafed under U.S. demands for greater inclusion in the Baghdad government and swifter work to complete a framework law for managing and distributing Iraq's oil wealth.
Kurdish leaders also favored a quicker referendum on Kirkuk and resented U.S. pressure this fall to do more to hunt the Kurdish rebels.