- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 7, 2009

UPDATED:

ISTANBUL, Turkey — President Obama made a surprise visit to Baghdad Tuesday on his way home from a weeklong trip through Europe, thanking American troops for their service and delivering a message to Iraq’s elected leaders that he expects them to peacefully resolve their remaining political differences and take full responsibility for their country.

“Now is not the time to lose focus. We have to be even more focused than we’ve been in order to achieve success,” Mr. Obama said, addressing several hundred U.S. soldiers who received him exuberantly at Al Faw Palace inside Camp Victory, the massive military base surrounding the airport outside Baghdad.

“We love you!” one female soldier called out.

“I love you back,” the president said.

Speaking to the small group of 14 reporters who traveled with him from Turkey to Iraq aboard Air Force One, Mr. Obama acknowledged the expectation that he would have visited Afghanistan, which is widely considered to be the war over which he has exercised the most control and direction, rather than Iraq.

“Obviously we’ve spent a lot of time trying to get Afghanistan right. But I think it’s important for us to remember that there’s still a lot of work to be done here,” he said.

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The White House said Mr. Obama chose to go to Iraq, instead of Afghanistan, because it was closer to Turkey, where he departed from, and because the trip was focused on U.S. troops as much as anything else.

But the president’s visit appeared to be targeted at sending a clear message to Iraq’s government that national elections later this year are a crucial test for them, and that they can no longer expect to rely indefinitely on the U.S. military to guarantee their security and stability. Mr. Obama has vowed to withdraw most U.S. troops from Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010, though he plans to leave behind a residual force of 30,000 to 50,000.

Though he met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talibani — who both drove out to Camp Victory when bad weather prevented Mr. Obama from going by helicopter into downtown Baghdad — Mr. Obama’s words to the U.S. troops spoke loud and clear to Iraq’s leaders.

“It is time for us to transition to the Iraqis,” Mr. Obama told the troops, who applauded. “They need to take responsibility for their country and for their sovereignty. And in order for them to do that, they have 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. They are going to have to focus on providing government services that encourage confidence among their citizens,” he said.

Mr. Obama called on the troops to do their best at “working alongside” the Iraqis to help them “achieve a more effective government, and we can start bringing our folks home.”

Following his meeting with Mr. al-Maliki, whose Shiite ethnic majority controls much of the federal government and was oppressed under Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, Mr. Obama said that it is “absolutely critical that all Iraqis are integrated into the government and security forces.”

He told the group of reporters that he wanted to “use all of our influence to encourage the parties to resolve these issues in ways that are equitable.”

Mr. Obama also met with Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. troops in Iraq. He talked with the general about whether troops are getting enough support, including for their mental health, about whether minority Sunnis are being effectively integrated into Iraq’s security forces, how the balance of power between the central and provincial governments is working out, and how much progress has been made on sharing revenues from oil production.

Among the U.S. soldiers in the audience at Al Faw Palace was Capt. Beau Biden, the son of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. Capt. Biden, who is also the attorney general of Delaware, is in Iraq for a year with the Delaware National Guard.

Mr. Obama awarded 10 medals of valor and talked in personal and emotional terms to the U.S. troops, thanking them for their sacrifices in missing the births of their children and facing mortal danger and the deaths of their friends.

“The main point I want to make is we have not forgotten what you have already done, we are grateful for what you will do, and as long as I am in the White House, you are going to get the support that you need and the thanks that you deserve from a grateful nation,” Mr. Obama said.

An advocacy group for families of U.S. soldiers applauded the president’s trip but urged him to “listen to the commanders on the ground when it comes to drawing down U.S. troops.”

“The progress that has been made in Iraq is fragile. Any considerations of withdrawal must be made based on conditions on the ground, and the recommendations of our commanders,” said John Ellsworth, president of Military Families United.

Mr. Obama left Turkey just past midday and was scheduled to head back to Washington after a week in London, Strasbourg, Prague and then here. But speculation that he would visit either Iraq or Afghanistan, or a major Muslim capital, was confirmed about three hours later to the majority of the White House press corps who remained behind here.

White House staffers with the press corps in Turkey were not informed of the president’s trip beforehand, they said.

Mr. Bush made four visits to Iraq after ordering U.S. forces to invade in the spring of 2003, toppling dictator Saddam Hussein on the pretense that he possessed weapons of mass destruction that could be passed on to al Qaeda or another terrorist organization intent on attacking America.

Each time he went to Iraq, Mr. Bush traveled with the greatest secrecy, much as Mr. Obama did this time. Iraq has stabilized significantly in the past year, but has been hit by a wave of bombings over the past few days.

Nonetheless, Gen. Odierno said that violence is at its lowest levels since the war began.

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