- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 8, 2009

ISTANBUL | President Obama used a surprise visit to Baghdad on Tuesday to deliver a blunt message to Iraq's leaders that it was time to put aside their political and sectarian differences and “take responsibility for their country and their sovereignty.”

During the unannounced four-hour visit, the climax of a eight-day trip to Europe, Mr. Obama told an enthusiastic audience of about 1,500 American troops that the next 18 months will be “critical” to his hopes to have all U.S. forces out of the country by the end of 2011.

Though he met later privately with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani - who both drove 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 loudly and clearly to Iraq's leaders.

“It is time for us to transition to the Iraqis,” Mr. Obama said. “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.”

The Iraq stopover capped a packed week in which Mr. Obama tackled the global economic crisis with Group of 20 leaders in London, struggled to boost NATO's commitment in Afghanistan on a visit to France, called for the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons on a stop in the Czech Republic and addressed tensions between the United States and the Muslim world in Turkey.

The highlight of Mr. Obama's second day in Turkey was a question-and-answer session with a group of college students. He said American optimism and forward-looking spirit could be useful in a region dominated by ancient animosities.

“The world needs to have a sense that change is possible,” he said, characterizing Americans as “an optimistic people.”

“We believe that anything is possible if we put our mind to it,” Mr. Obama said, speaking in a 200-year-old cannonball foundry that was transformed into a town hall setting for the event.

But he cautioned that U.S. policy would not be transformed overnight and that attitudes in Turkey and other parts of the Muslim world on issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must change as well.

“In the Muslim world, this notion that everything is the fault of the Israelis lacks balance, because there's two sides to every question,” he said.

He appealed for patience from his Turkish audience even as he promised “a new chapter of American engagement” with the world.

“States are like big tankers; they're not like speedboats,” he said. “You can't just whip them around and go in another direction.”

But just hours later, Mr. Obama's message to Iraqi leaders had a clear undertone of impatience.

Although insurgent violence has fallen sharply in the past two years, Mr. al-Maliki's Shi'ite-dominated government has struggled to accommodate restive Sunni Muslim factions into the political system, reflecting deep sectarian distrust dating back to the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Mr. Obama, who as a U.S. senator opposed the Iraq war and the troop surge credited with quelling violence, said it was time for Iraq's leaders to deliver for the people.

“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.

He arrived in Iraq a day after a string of seemingly coordinated bombings across the capital killed 37 people. On Tuesday, a car bomb killed nine people in a Shi'ite district in northwestern Baghdad, police said.

In his first visit to Iraq as president, the commander in chief thanked U.S. troops for their efforts to date and warned of tough challenges ahead even as the American mission winds down.

“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 told 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 group of 14 reporters who traveled with him from Turkey to Iraq aboard Air Force One, Mr. Obama acknowledged the widespread expectation that he was planning a visit to Afghanistan, not Iraq, after the administration's recent announcement of a major new deployment there.

The White House said Mr. Obama went to Iraq instead of Afghanistan because it was closer to Turkey and because the trip was focused on U.S. troops.

But the president's visit also was clearly designed to send a clear message to Iraq's government ahead of critical national elections later this year, a veiled warning that Iraqi leaders cannot rely indefinitely on U.S. forces to underwrite their country's security and stability.

After his meeting with Mr. al-Maliki, Mr. Obama said 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. The two discussed support for U.S. troops and the state of Iraq's political system and its oil-based economy.

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 has vowed to end U.S. combat operations in Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010, though he plans to leave a residual force of 30,000 to 50,000 troops to support and train Iraqi security forces.

While in Iraq, Mr. Obama awarded 10 medals for valor. He talked in personal and emotional terms about U.S. troops' sacrifices in missing the births of their children, facing mortal danger and dealing with the deaths of comrades.

“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 commended the president's trip but urged Mr. Obama 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 return to Washington, but speculation was rife that he would pay a visit to either Iraq or Afghanistan.

White House staffers with the press corps in Turkey were not informed of the president's trip beforehand, they said, and only a few reporters were chosen to accompany Mr. Obama to Camp Victory.

President Bush made four visits to Iraq after ordering U.S. forces to invade in the spring of 2003.

Each time he went to Iraq, Mr. Bush traveled with heavy 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.

Mr. Obama's aides said they were happy with the fruits of the whirlwind trip, the president's first major international foray. Top Obama adviser David Axelrod told reporters that the White House considered the trip to be “enormously productive.”

“I can't really remember an American president who had as extensive and productive a week of meetings across the span of events that this president has participated in this week,” Mr. Axelrod said.

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