BAGHDAD, Oct. 5 — Wearing a helmet and a flak jacket and flanked by machine-gun-toting bodyguards to defend against insurgents, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came here Thursday, insisting that there were new signs of progress in Iraq and that the Bush administration had never sugarcoated its news about the American occupation.
"It is a quite critical time for the Iraqi government," Ms. Rice said of the reasons for her brief unannounced visit to the Iraqi capital.
"What the American people see on their television screens is the struggle," she said. "It is harder to show the political process that is going on at local levels, at provincial levels and indeed at the national level." Iraqis, she said, are "making progress."
Ms. Rice said she was in Iraq to offer support to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and to urge him to move faster to settle political differences that are seen as having prevented actions to curb the insurgents’ violence.
Ms. Rice met twice with Mr. Maliki on Thursday and praised him for his "excellent leadership of Iraq."
Yet signs of progress were not much in evidence in the first hours of her visit.
It began inauspiciously when the military transport plane that brought her to Baghdad was forced to circle the city for about 40 minutes because of what a State Department spokesman later said was either mortar fire or rockets at the airport.
On Thursday evening, during her meeting with President Jalal Talabani, the lights went out, forcing Ms. Rice to continue the discussion in the dark. It was a reminder of the city’s erratic — and sometimes nonexistent — electrical service.
She arrived in the midst of an especially bloody few days for American troops. At least 21 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq since Saturday, most in Baghdad. Two car bombings in the city on Thursday left at least four Iraqi civilians dead.
The extraordinary security precautions for Ms. Rice’s trip here — her first to Iraq in six months, her fifth as secretary of state — were evidence of continuing turmoil in Iraq three years after the American ouster of Saddam Hussein.
Traveling from Israel on Thursday morning, Ms. Rice had to abandon her comfortable official jet at an American air base in Turkey and to board a C-17A cargo plane equipped with antimissile technology for the final, 90-minute leg into Baghdad; that procedure has become routine for all high-ranking Bush administration officials visiting Iraq.
From the airport in Baghdad, Ms. Rice flew by military helicopter to the heavily fortified American-controlled Green Zone, bypassing the dangerous, explosives-strewn airport highway into the city.
Reporters traveling with her were told of the Baghdad trip only hours before departure and were instructed not to share details with anyone, including their editors and families, until she had arrived safely. They were barred from reporting how long she would stay in Iraq until after she had left the country.
Meeting with reporters en route to Baghdad, Ms. Rice defended Prime Minister Maliki against recent criticism from senior Iraqi and American officials that he has failed to show the political muscle needed to prevent a full civil war.
"I do think he has the strength," she said. "I think he’s a very good and strong prime minister."
She said that Mr. Maliki’s government was "starting to really take some actions" to end the insurgency and restore order, including the move this week to suspend a brigade of about 800 Iraqi policemen for suspected complicity in death squads.
"That’s a very positive thing, because we’ve said many times that the Interior Ministry in the prior government, before the permanent government was put in place, was not active enough" in dealing with police collusion with militias, she said.
"The security situation is not one that can be tolerated and it’s not one helped by political inaction," she said. "That is a message that Prime Minister Maliki is trying to send."
While trying to put a brave face on the situation here, Ms. Rice defended the administration from accusations at home that President Bush and his closest advisers — Ms. Rice has been singled out among them — have not been truthful about Iraq.
The criticism has grown sharper since the disclosure of details last week from a new book by the reporter Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, who has been granted extraordinary access to President Bush’s inner circle in the past, that depicts the administration as dysfunctional and deceitful about the American invasion and occupation of Iraq.
In the book, "State of Denial," Ms. Rice is described as having ignored warnings about a possible terrorist attack before Sept. 11, 2001, when she was the national security adviser, and as having discouraged debate about national security issues. Ms. Rice and the White House have disputed many of the book’s assertions.
The book reports that President Bush’s father, former President George Bush, who employed Ms. Rice on his National Security Council in the early 1990’s, had said recently that she had been a "disappointment" and "not up to the job."
The senior Mr. Bush disputed that account during an interview on CNN with Larry King on Thursday. "If that’s a quote, it’s a lie," he said. "I can’t make it any more clear than that because I like Condoleezza Rice." "I can’t believe Woodward — I haven’t read the book — that he actually said I said that."
Mr. Bush said he had spoken to Ms. Rice and added, "I guess there were some hurt feelings." He said he had told her not to believe the account.
Meeting with reporters en route to Baghdad, Ms. Rice refused to be drawn into a discussion about the book. "Look, I’m not going to address Bob Woodward," she said.
Jim Rutenberg contributed reporting from Washington.