Obama Makes Surprise Iraq Stop

President Obama made a surprise visit to Iraq Tuesday, telling U.S. Troops that it was time for Iraqis to take responsibility for their own country. Obama also met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who later said he assured the president that progress on security will continue.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris. President Obama has wrapped up a weeklong trip through Europe and Turkey with an unannounced visit to American troops in Baghdad. This is Mr. Obama's third trip to Iraq, but his first as commander-in-chief. He met with American servicemen and women on a base outside Baghdad, but poor weather prevented the president from travelling into the Iraqi capital. We're joined now by NPR's Quil Lawrence in Baghdad.

Quil, who did Mr. Obama manage to meet on this trip?

QUIL LAWRENCE: He first met with US troops and with commanders of US military forces in Iraq. And at beginning, it looked like he wasn't going to be able to see the actual leaders of Iraq, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Because of this overcast, low visibility, the helicopter flights into Baghdad were cancelled. But in the end, the prime minister and president of Iraq actually got out to the base to meet with him.

NORRIS: And as we said, this was a surprise visit. What message did he carry to the troops?

LAWRENCE: We can listen, actually, to a short excerpt of what he said to the troops.

BARACK OBAMA: It is time for us to transition to the Iraqis. They...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

OBAMA: They need to take responsibility for their country and for their sovereignty.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

OBAMA: And in order for them to do that, they've got to make political accommodations. They're going to have to decide that they want to resolve their differences through constitutional means and legal means.

NORRIS: Quil, when we listen to the response that Mr. Obama got, should we assume that they're happy with what they're hearing?

LAWRENCE: Absolutely. This was a very warm reception. It's not like normal applause in the military. Depending on whether they're Marines or Army, they'll give either an ooh-wah or the woo sound that you heard there. So this was definitely a very warm welcome for that message, that he's committed to bringing the majority of US troops home by the middle of next year. He also stressed, however, that there's a lot of political work that needs to be done here on the ground in Iraq, that the United States to remain - needs to remain a strong partner with Iraq to make sure that they can get to the point where American troops will be able to come home.

NORRIS: There's been a sudden uptick in violence this week in Iraq. How does that square with President Obama's pledge to start bringing those troops home?

LAWRENCE: Well, the commander of US forces in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, assured the president that despite the car bombs over the past couple of days, these are still some of the lowest levels of violence we've seen in several years. But this violence was clearly sectarian, and that's a concern that we might be returning to the bad old days of 2006, 7 and 8, where thousands were killed in sectarian violence.

NORRIS: And how have Iraqis reacted to the first visit of the new American president?

LAWRENCE: Well, most Iraqis, of course, when we went out to ask, didn't know he was here. It was a secret, unannounced visit. They were generally positive. Some referred to his family background, his Muslim family background as something that gave them a positive impression. Many others said that they weren't really sure that he can do much to solve some of the problems he's arrived into office with. And a few seemed a bit upset that President Obama had come to Iraq and just stayed out on a big military base outside Baghdad where the only Iraqis who get to see him were the president and the prime minister.

NORRIS: Thank you, Quil.

LAWRENCE: Thank you.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Baghdad bureau chief, Quil Lawrence.

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Obama Makes Unannounced Stop In Iraq

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

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

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

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

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