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Cheney Visits al-Maliki for Talks on Iraq

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

Vice President Dick Cheney made an unannounced visit to Iraq today at the start of a weeklong Middle East tour. Cheney talked with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki - and other Iraqi leaders - about the ongoing military operation in securing Baghdad, and he discussed Maliki's attempts to reconcile Iraq's Shiite majority with the country's minority Sunnis. NPR's Jamie Tarabay joins us on the line from Baghdad.

And I want to ask you about benchmarks, which we hear people talk about in this country all the time, things the Iraqi government has to do to ensure continued support from Washington, an oil law - and de-Baathification. Do people in Iraq talk about benchmarks?

JAMIE TARABAY: Well, Iraq's leaders are aware of what the U.S. expects of them, but benchmarks as a concept isn't really part of the political lexicon here. Iraqis don't have elections in the year to worry about. They don't think of progress in this country as hitting certain benchmarks within a set timeframe. We hear Iraqi officials say that they're only going to get one shot at getting this right, so they don't want to be rushed.

And there's also some resistance coming from within the Iraqi government to be seen to be doing whatever the U.S. administration wants it to do. That doesn't make them look good in the eyes of ordinary Iraqis - most of whom already believe that government isn't really in control and the Americans are.

SIEGEL: Well, so Vice President Cheney arrives in Baghdad. What is his message to the Iraqi government?

TARABAY: He wants them to get moving with the political process. He wants them to carry on putting through legislation on the redistribution of the revenue and the oil law. The Kurds have already begun funding deals with foreign companies out of the oil fields in the north, and this has really upset Iraq's Sunnis, in particular, who are feeling increasingly marginalized. They don't have oil fields under their direct control. They're still waiting for parliament to pass legislation, reviewing the banning of former members of Saddam's Baath Party, and passing this legislation is key to getting the Sunnis on side. And most of the American officials who've come through Baghdad have all emphasized this point.

There's also a two-month summer vacation that's coming up that Iraqi lawmakers are expecting to take although Western - American officials have put pressure on the lawmakers to put off this vacation while these issues are unresolved. And today, the vice president said that any undue delay in putting through this legislation would be very difficult to explain.

SIEGEL: Now even as Vice President Cheney was arriving in Baghdad and being there, I gathered there was a large explosion in the Green Zone, but it didn't affect his visit at all. Is that right?

TARABAY: That's right. He was in a meeting at the time. We don't know the origin of the blast. We don't know if there were any casualties. But a spokesperson for the vice president said that he continued his meetings, he wasn't disturbed, and he wasn't moved. At the same time, there was violence elsewhere in the country even in northern Kurdistan, which is normally quite peaceful. There was an explosion just after 8:00 this morning. A driver blew up his truck carrying hundreds of pounds of dynamite in downtown Erbil. And it was aimed at the Kurdish Interior Ministery, but officials say women and children heading to a nearby school were hit in the blast, and at least 19 people were killed and more than 70 others were wounded.

SIEGEL: Well, since the beginning of the surge of U.S. and Iraqi forces in Baghdad, there have been claims of a drop in sectarian killings in the Iraqi capital. Is that trend holding up?

TARABAY: Well, no. Not really. Today, Major General William Caldwell, the U.S. military spokesman, told reporters that there's been a slight uptick - those were his words - in the numbers of murders and executions by sectarian death squads in the past two weeks in Baghdad. Now, he has in the past pointed to the lower number of sectarian killings as an indication that the surge was working. But in the past four days, the Baghdad Central Morgue has reported receiving more than a hundred bodies. And now - as a result of this increase - Major General Caldwell said that the U.S. military is now thinking how it's going to redistribute forces within the capital to address this latest increase in sectarian killings.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Jamie Tarabay in Baghdad. Thank you very much, Jamie.

TARABAY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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