Gordon Johndroe, US national security spokesman, said: "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 process made and to encourage additional political reconciliation and legislative action."

Rice was last in Iraq on December 18, when she held talks with politicians in the capital and the northern oil city of Kirkuk.

US benchmarks

Her visit comes after the Iraqi parliament passed a long-delayed 'justice and accountability' law allowing former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party back into public life.

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"It is a good step toward unification at a time when sectarian violence seems to be on the decline and Sunni tribes are mostly fighting Al-Qaeda instead of supporting them".

surfdog1958, US

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The adoption of the law was one of 18 "benchmarks" Washington has listed as measures of political reconciliation in Iraq, divided by sectarian strife.

Bush said in Bahrain on Saturday: "It's an important sign that the leaders in that country must work together to meet the aspirations of the Iraqi people."

However, Bush said Iraqi politicians still needed to make more progress on the other 17 benchmarks that Washington has set for gauging political reconciliation efforts.

The new law will allow thousands of middle-ranking Baath party members to apply for reinstatement to their jobs in the civil service and military, provided they were not convicted of crimes.