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Obama Travels To Iraq For First Visit As President

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Obama Travels To Iraq For First Visit As President

Obama Travels To Iraq For First Visit As President

Obama Travels To Iraq For First Visit As President

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President Obama made an unannounced stop in Baghdad on Tuesday as he returned from his European trip. It's Obama's first war-zone visit as president.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. With Ari Shapiro, I'm Renee Montagne.

President Obama this hour touched down in Baghdad. It was an unannounced stop on his first overseas trip as president. He headed straight for America's largest military base there, Camp Victory, where he'll speak to troops and hand out medals. This stop in Iraq comes at the end of a round of meetings in Europe and Turkey. NPR's Don Gonyea joins us from Istanbul.

And Don, this stop in Iraq was kept pretty secret, right?

DON GONYEA: It was. There was, I can tell you, a great deal of speculation going back several days. A lot of people thought we're so close to Afghanistan, so close to Iraq, that maybe the president would use this as an opportunity to stop over there on his way home. Turns out, that is exactly what happened. He took off from Istanbul at, let's see, at 2:20 local time this afternoon. And it was about a two-and-a-half-hour window, we wondered where he was, before we finally got official word from White House officials speaking to the rest of us in the press corps - who are back here finishing up and filing our stories on the European trip - that he had, indeed, landed at Baghdad International Airport.

MONTAGNE: And now do you know who the president will meet in his brief stop there in Iraq?

GONYEA: Yes. He's going to sit down with General Ray Odierno at Camp Victory. Odierno is the top US commander in Iraq. So he'll get that first-hand assessment of things there. Recall, too, that it was just, you know, a few weeks back that President Obama announced that he is going to draw down US combat troops in Iraq over the next two years - a little bit less than that. And a lot of those troops will be going over to Afghanistan. Now, while here, he is also going to meet with troops, and he will - as you mentioned - participate in a ceremony awarding 10 medals of valor.

Then, there are the Iraqi officials. He had planned on taking a helicopter to meet with Prime Minister al-Maliki and President Talabani. There are weather problems there. So we're now hearing that he's either going to talk to them on the phone, or maybe they may find their way to Camp Victory to see him. But he will have that conversation with those Iraqi leaders to address the political component of what needs to happen next. The White House says that's a very, very important part of Iraq being able to stand on its own in the future.

MONTAGNE: Now, Don, one thing about the president's last two days there in Turkey is that both the people in Turkey and the government have been very much opposed to the war in Iraq. What has Mr. Obama been saying?

GONYEA: Remember, Iraq sits right on the border here with Turkey. President Obama did something unusual today. He did a town hall meeting in a foreign country, in Turkey, in a majority Muslim country - 99 percent Muslim here in Turkey. And he took questions about a variety of topics, but someone asked: Is there really any difference between you and George Bush, kind of at the core? The war goes on, there's still conflict in the Middle East. And President Obama talked about that in this answer. Give a listen.

President BARACK OBAMA: When it comes to Iraq, I opposed the war in Iraq. I thought it was a bad idea. Now that we're there, I have a responsibility to make sure that as we bring troops out, that we do so in a careful enough way that you don't see a complete collapse into violence.

MONTAGNE: President Obama, earlier today in Turkey. But the event, of course, we were just listening, was there. What else did he do in that country?

GONYEA: Well, he met with the prime minister. He met with the president. He toured some historic sites. He toured the Blue Mosque and other places here. So he did all of that, and he also held that roundtable. But mostly, it was to send a message to Turkey, how critical it is. The White House sees Turkey -because it is a Muslim country, but also a member of the NATO alliance - as an example to the Muslim world as a secular democracy, but it's also a country that they feel can reach out as the US pursues these missions in Afghanistan and in Iraq.

MONTAGNE: Don, thanks very much.

GONYEA: All right. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Don Gonyea is speaking to us from Istanbul.

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Obama Makes Unannounced Stop In Iraq

Obama Makes Unannounced Stop In Iraq

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President Obama greets troops Tuesday during a visit to Camp Victory, just outside Baghdad. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama greets troops Tuesday during a visit to Camp Victory, just outside Baghdad.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama arrived unannounced in Iraq on Tuesday, stopping briefly to get a firsthand look at the conflict he has vowed to bring to a peaceful end and to thank U.S. troops for their efforts.

In a speech to U.S. soldiers at Camp Victory near Baghdad International Airport, the president pledged to bring troops home by next summer as part of a plan to "transition to the Iraqis." He stood in front of a huge American flag as service men and women strained to snap pictures of him.

"I'm not going to talk long because I want to shake as many hands as I can," Obama said before thanking soldiers for their "extraordinary achievement" in turning Iraq into a fledgling democracy. He then added, to huge applause, that Iraqis need to "take responsibility for their country."

"This is going to be a critical period, these next 18 months," Obama said, referring to the August 2010 deadline for the withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops from Iraq. "You will be critical in terms of us being able to make sure Iraq is stable, that it is not a safe haven for terrorists, and we can start bringing our folks home."

The president arrived in Baghdad after a two-day visit to Turkey. It was his third trip to Iraq, but his first since becoming commander in chief.

Shortly after arriving aboard Air Force One — and just hours after a deadly car bombing in Baghdad — Obama praised political progress in the country but said the gains could be erased in the upcoming national elections.

"It's important for us to use all of our influence to encourage the parties to resolve these issues in ways that are equitable. I think that my presence here can help do that," he said. He also acknowledged that there was "a lot of work to do here."

Obama had planned to fly by helicopter to visit Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talibani, but the White House said "poor weather" meant he would have to talk to the Iraqi leaders by telephone.

After his plane touched down, Obama was greeted by Gen. Ray Odierno, who told the president that despite the recent bombings in Iraq, overall, violence was at its lowest since the beginning of the March 2003 invasion.

Initially, Afghanistan had been under consideration for the presidential visit, which has been cloaked in secrecy for security reasons. But Iraq was chosen for its proximity to Turkey and because political solutions are the key to progress there, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

"Our men and women who are in harm's way, either in Iraq or Afghanistan, deserve our utmost respect and appreciation," Gibbs said.

Obama arrived hours after a car bomb exploded in a Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad, offering up a stark reminder of the violence that has claimed the lives of more than 4,000 U.S. service men and women and tens of thousands of Iraqis.

The visit came at the conclusion of a trip that included not only the visit to Turkey, but also economic and NATO summits elsewhere in Europe.

Before leaving Turkey, Obama said Iraq is an example of the change he seeks in policies inherited from former President Bush.

"Moving the ship of state takes time," he told a group of students in Istanbul. He noted his longstanding opposition to the war, yet said, "Now that we're there," the U.S. troop withdrawal has to be done "in a careful enough way that we don't see a collapse into violence."

From NPR and wire service reports