Clinton: Nothing More Important Than United Iraq

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad on Saturday and answered questions from Iraqis during a town hall style meeting. Her visit comes at the end of a week that was marked by several suicide attacks that more than 150 people dead.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Hillary Rodham Clinton made her first trip to Baghdad as secretary of State today. She arrived after several days of deadly violence. And that has many wondering whether recent security gains in Iraq might be crumbling, just as the U.S. is pulling troops out to focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Clinton's meetings with Iraqi officials and citizens were filled with questions about America's commitment.

NPR's Quil Lawrence reports from Baghdad.

QUIL LAWRENCE: Secretary Clinton met with Iraq's president and prime minister, reinforcing the Obama administration's promise to ensure a stable and self-sufficient Iraq, even as American troop levels recede.

After a briefing with military commanders, Clinton said the improvements in Iraq's security will not be undone by the suicide attacks this week, which killed more than 150 people.

Secretary HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (United States Department of State): They are certainly regrettable and horrible in terms of loss of life, but the reaction from the Iraqi people and the Iraqi leaders was firm and united in rejecting that violence and refusing to allow it to set Iraqi against Iraqi, which is obviously one of its intended goals.

LAWRENCE: Clinton spoke at a news conference alongside Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari. He said the plan for American troops to leave major cities is still on target for July, despite the violence.

Mr. HOSHYAR ZEBARI (Iraqi Foreign Minister): Yes, we have indeed certain timeline for withdrawal from the population center and the city centers, but we are doing our utmost and we are coordinating very closely with the multinational forces to ensure that there is no vacuum when that happens.

LAWRENCE: Earlier, Clinton held a campaign-style town hall meeting with about 200 Iraqis inside the U.S. embassy. She gave a brief statement and then took questions and comments for about an hour, which amounted to a laundry list of Iraq's problems with security, education and development.

Clinton enjoyed a measure of celebrity status, especially with women, who made up about half the crowd.

A student named Susan(ph) asked for career advice.

Ms. SUSAN: My question is: Madame Secretary, for being, you know, a role model to every woman in this world and through the great accomplishments you have made, what sort of advice you want to give me as an ambitious young woman?

LAWRENCE: Clinton stressed the importance of education and urged Iraqis to draw upon the talents of both men and women in building a future for Iraq. But not all the questions were softballs. A young Iraqi journalist named Samir Yusef(ph) spoke for many in his concern that the American withdrawal might lead Iraq back to sectarian violence.

Mr. SAMIR YUSEF (Journalist): (Through translator) Madam Secretary, my name is Samir Yusef. Frankly, there are so many people here and so many citizens who do not have enough trust and confidence in the Iraqi forces. What could you do in order to really stop this misgiving and doubts?

Sec. CLINTON: Well, there is nothing more important than to have a united Iraq. We will be working closely as we withdraw our combat troops, but we need to be sure that all of you are supporting a strong, non-sectarian security force.

LAWRENCE: But the answer didn't immediately calm the fears of the young Iraqi journalist. Mrs. Clinton left, along with her interpreter, without translating the answer into Arabic.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Baghdad.

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