Obama: Time To Phase Out Combat Role In Iraq

President Obama, on a quick visit to Baghdad on Tuesday, told U.S. troops that it was time for Iraqis to "take responsibility for their country." He underscored his commitment to withdrawing most U.S. troops in the next year and a half.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.


And I'm Renee Montagne. President Obama was in Iraq yesterday for the first time since taking office. While his administration has been focusing on the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. still has more combat troops on duty in Iraq than anywhere else. The president met with several hundred of them at Camp Victory in Baghdad.

President BARACK OBAMA: You have given Iraq the opportunity to stand on its own as a democratic country. That is an extraordinary achievement and for that, you have the thanks of the American people.

(Soundbite of cheering)

MONTAGNE: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is in Baghdad and filed this report.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Underneath the huge, twinkling chandelier in one of Saddam Hussein's most lavish palaces in what is now U.S. base Camp Victory, President Obama addressed several hundred U.S. servicemen and women. One audience member shouted out, I love you, just as the president was making his opening remarks.

Pres. OBAMA: I love you back.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Pres. OBAMA: I am honored, I am honored and grateful to be with all of you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mr. Obama was a fervent opponent of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and now as president, he has promised to end the war. Next year, 100,000 U.S. troops will leave here under his current timetable; by the end of 2011, all U.S. forces will be out of this country.

Pres. OBAMA: This is going to be a critical period, these next 18 months. I was just discussing this with your commander, but I think it's something that all of you know. It is time for us to transition to the Iraqis. They…

(Soundbite of cheering)

Pres. OBAMA: …they need to take responsibility for their country and for their sovereignty.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That statement gathered the biggest applause of the evening from the troops gathered there. It was a theme Mr. Obama continued in meetings with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani. Bad helicopter weather forced the president to stay at Camp Victory; instead, Iraqi leaders came to him by car. In a 30-minute private meeting, the president, according to Iraqi officials, pledged to honor the withdrawal timetable. Afterwards, as the president and the prime minister stood side by side, Mr. Obama stated unequivocally that the U.S. role here has changed.

Pres. OBAMA: I've made it clear to my commanders that we need to be flexible but focused on training and equipping and supporting Iraqi security forces so that they can take the lead in dealing with security threats in their country.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But President Obama also stressed the need for the Iraqi government to do more on the political side to foster reconciliation.

Pres. OBAMA: Again, we've seen very good progress, but going forward it's absolutely critical that all Iraqis are fully integrated into the government and the security forces.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The president's warning comes at a critical time here. U.S.-backed Sunni paramilitaries are supposed to join Iraq's ministries and police and army, but many of the Sunni fighters complain that they've not been paid their salaries by the Iraqi government in months. Only 5 percent of the Sunni forces have been allowed to join the security services so far, and many have been arrested or have warrants out for their arrest. The U.S., which trained and supported the hundred-thousand-strong force of former Sunni insurgents, considers their incorporation vital to the process of reconciliation here. But the transition has been fraught, and there is deep mistrust on both sides.

In his brief statement, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, for his part, stated that security was now good enough for international companies to come and invest here. He said, we assured the president that all the progress that was made in the security area will continue, so we will be able to continue our rebuilding effort, our progress in Iraq. Still, the president's visit came after two days of terrible bloodshed in Baghdad, where a total of over 30 people were killed and 150 were wounded in seven bombings.

(Soundbite of woman crying)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The familiar sounds of grief and loss rang through the capital, and following that, fear. At one of the bombings in the Shiite slum of Sadr City, resident Abu Mohammed(ph) said he still worries about the future.

Mr. ABU MOHAMMED: (Through translator) What can we do? This was just one bombing, and I think there will be more and more.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Iraqis are caught between a desire to see U.S. troops, who many here view as occupying forces, leave Iraq and the worry that once they go, violence will flare up again. On the streets of the capital, many Iraqis said they approve of President Obama's withdrawal plan. At a coffee shop, Ali Mukhia Akmed(ph), though, stressed that for now, U.S. troops are necessary.

Mr. ALI MUKHIA AKMED: (Through translator) For sure, they'll be pulling out, but we don't want them to leave too soon or do an uncalculated withdrawal because there is still a lot of instability here, and we need them until Iraqi security forces are better trained.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As for Mr. Obama himself, Ali says he hasn't formed an opinion yet. He says this is his first visit as president, after all.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.