Obama Visits Iraq After Afghanistan, Kuwait Stops

Barack Obama is in Iraq, where he'll meet with U.S. commanders and troops, as well as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee met with President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan this weekend and then made a stop in Kuwait.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos in for Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Barack Obama is visiting Iraq after stopping in Afghanistan. But the destination for some of his messages is the United States. He was passing through Kabul when he stopped for an interview with "Face the Nation" on CBS.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): One of the shifts in foreign policy that I want to execute as president is giving the world a clear message that America intends to continue to show leadership. But our style of leadership is going to be less unilateral. And I think this gives me a head start in that process.

INSKEEP: The Democratic candidate got a head start of sorts before arriving in Baghdad. Iraq's prime minister was quoted in a way that appeared to support Obama's plans for Iraq. The prime minister has since backtracked, but now Obama is in his country.

And we go now to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who's covering this story from Baghdad. And Soraya, if you could clear this up to the extent it can be cleared up: Does Iraq's government support Barack Obama's plan to have troops out of the country within - most troops out of the country - within about 16 months of Obama taking office, if he does?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Well, certainly, privately, they are very supportive of that. The spokesman for the government, in fact, told us a couple days back that they are - they would prefer a 2010 time frame, although that's not something the White House is too keen about, but because of an interview that appeared in Der Spiegel this week, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki backtracked. Obviously, they came under some pressure from the White House, and they also don't want to be seen as partisan or taking a side in our presidential election.

And so, therefore, they've sort of backed off any sort of public statement that they support what Mr. Obama has proposed.

INSKEEP: Nevertheless, you have this situation where Obama is meeting today with Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, and al-Maliki is talking about getting U.S. troops out before too much longer, which maybe raises the question of where we stand now. The so-called surge troops are gone. Who's left in Iraq - how many American troops, and what are they doing?

NELSON: As you noted, the surge troops did leave this month, the last few apparently this past week here, and at the moment there are approximately 145,000 American troops on the ground, 15 combat brigades, if you will, and they are increasingly moving to a support role. I mean, they still are very active in fighting insurgents and trying to bring peace and stability to the region but increasingly, they're going to move to a supportive role where the Iraqi army and Iraqi police take the lead and they sort of provide the backup training, aviation support, that sort of thing that they might need.

In fact, last week the Americans turned over the tenth of 18 provinces back to Iraqi control, and I think we're going to see more of this if the situation remains stable on the ground.

INSKEEP: So as he looks over this situation, which in some respects is better than Obama himself had predicted, what is Barack Obama going to be able to see?

NELSON: Well, he certainly will get a very detailed briefing from military commanders and also from Iraqi officials. He's speaking with not only Mr. Maliki but also with the Sunnis and the Kurds here. And what he's going to see is that things are in fact quieter and that perhaps a drawdown will work. But he will also learn about where the problems remain in terms of insurgents.

INSKEEP: Soraya, is this visit to Iraq as big a deal to Iraqis as it seems to be to Americans?

NELSON: Well, they certainly are very interested in the candidate, Mr. Obama, because he is culturally diverse and different than a lot of the other candidates that we've had in U.S. presidential race. But quite frankly, they are not persuaded that if Mr. Obama is in fact elected to office that they'll see any change. They just feel that the Americans are going to go about their business as usual and they're not really persuaded that the American forces will in fact leave.

INSKEEP: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Baghdad. Soraya, thanks very much.

NELSON: You're welcome.

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