Obama Makes Unannounced Stop In Iraq On a trip shrouded in secrecy, President Obama flew into Iraq on Tuesday for a brief look at a war he opposed as a candidate and now vows to end as commander in chief. The visit came at the conclusion of a long overseas trip that included economic and NATO summits in Europe and two days in Turkey.
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Obama Makes Unannounced Stop In Iraq

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Obama Makes Unannounced Stop In Iraq

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