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.