- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 26, 2009

BAGHDAD | Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sought Saturday to assure Iraqis that the Obama administration would not abandon their country even as it presses ahead with plans to withdraw American troops amid a recent surge in violence.

Mrs. Clinton said the drawdown would be handled in a “responsible and careful way” and would not affect efforts to improve Iraq’s security forces or complete reconstruction and development projects.

But Iraqis, and particularly their security forces, need to overcome sectarian and other differences if they are to build a united, secure nation, she said.

“Let me assure you and repeat what President Obama said, we are committed to Iraq; we want to see a stable, sovereign, self-reliant Iraq,” she told a nervous but receptive crowd at a town hall meeting at the U.S. Embassy.

“We are very committed, but the nature of our commitment may look somewhat different because we are going to be withdrawing our combat troops over the next couple of years,” Mrs. Clinton said.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari welcomed the overture.

“The secretary’s message today to all of us was a very assuring message that the United States would continue to support the efforts of the Iraqi government and the enhancement of Iraqi security and stability,” he said later at a joint news conference.

He also said he had reaffirmed the government’s commitment to the timetable despite concerns that the uptick in attacks could prompt a need to reconsider a June 30 deadline for the United States to withdraw combat soldiers from Iraqi cities.

“We are doing our utmost and we are coordinating very closely with the multinational forces to ensure that there is no vacuum when that happens, that security is viable,” he said.

On her first trip to Iraq as America’s top diplomat, Mrs. Clinton said the country has made great strides despite the recent surge in violence. High-profile attacks last week primarily targeted Shi’ite worshippers. More than 150 people, many of them Iranian pilgrims, were killed.

“I condemn these violent recent efforts to disrupt the progress that Iraq is making,” she said at the news conference with Mr. Zebari. She called the attacks a sign that extremists are afraid the Iraqi government is succeeding.

Iran’s supreme leader blamed the United States and Israel for the attacks. “Dirty hands and evil brains that founded this blind and uncontrolled terrorism in Iraq should know that the fire will burn themselves,” Iran’s state TV quoted Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as saying Saturday.

Mrs. Clinton rejected the assertion.

“It is disappointing for anyone to make such a claim since it is clearly traced to the al Qaeda remnants and other violent groups who wish to disrupt the progress of Iraq,” she said.

The Pentagon plans to hand over responsibility for most urban security in about three months as part of the administration’s goal of a complete exit of forces by the end of 2011.

U.S. officials say they remain committed to a June 30 deadline to move all forces outside major cities, including Baghdad. But the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Raymond Odierno, has said American troops could “maintain a presence” in some cities if requested by the Iraqis.

Mrs. Clinton was met at the airport by the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and the new U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Christopher Hill.

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