By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
BAGHDAD, April 7 -- President Obama declared Tuesday that Iraqis "must take responsibility for their country" and predicted that the next 18 months will be trying as U.S. troops start to leave a country stymied by security threats and political problems.
During his maiden visit to Iraq as commander in chief, Obama elicited cheers and thunderous applause from American troops inside a palace built by Saddam Hussein as he thanked them for their service.
"Under enormous strain and under enormous sacrifice, through controversy and difficulty and politics, you've kept your eyes focused on just doing your jobs," Obama told the troops shortly after landing in Baghdad for a visit that had not been disclosed. "You have given Iraq the opportunity to stand on its own as a democratic country."
Obama, in Iraq after an eight-day trip through Europe and Turkey, said he was heartened that Iraqis were increasingly fighting their battles in the political arena rather than on the street. But he cautioned that Iraq's upcoming national election is likely to bring many of the country's unresolved political issues "to a head."
"They have got to make political accommodations," Obama said. "They're going to have to decide that they want to resolve their differences through constitutional means and legal means."
Iraqi leaders remain at odds over several issues. Chief among them are the way the country's oil wealth will be distributed and a simmering fight between Arabs and Kurds in northern Iraq over control of disputed territories.
After speaking to the troops, Obama met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at Camp Victory. The two leaders spoke privately for a few minutes and later addressed a small audience from podiums flanked by flags of the two nations.
"Dialogue should be the only way to resolve any issue, whether it was among components of Iraqi society or in the region," Maliki said, summarizing his conversation with Obama.
In sharp contrast to the previous U.S. presidential visit to Iraq, in December, when an Iraqi journalist hurled his shoes at President George W. Bush, many Iraqis spoke approvingly of Obama on Tuesday.
"It is important as it represents American pressure on the Maliki government to take serious steps toward reconciliation," political scientist Nasayef Jassem said of the visit. "It is important in that it will push the government to fulfill its promises."
Obama, who spent less than five hours in Baghdad and did not leave the sprawling U.S. military base adjacent to the airport, arrived in the capital amid fresh signs that violence in Iraq could be on the upswing.
A spate of car bombings in Baghdad on Monday killed more than 30 people, and two explosions in the capital and in the western city of Fallujah killed 12 people Tuesday.
The attacks prompted Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to call for "quick, effective" measures to "prevent the security situation from collapsing."
Talabani said in a statement that Iraqi leaders are concerned about intelligence reports that suggest al-Qaeda in Iraq plans to assassinate top Sunni politicians.
Air Force One arrived at Baghdad International Airport shortly after 4:40 p.m. A light sandstorm created a bleak backdrop as Obama stepped off the plane to greet Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
Obama reiterated his commitment to withdraw all U.S. troops by the end of 2011 and, in an apparent reference to the widely held view that the United States invaded Iraq looking for oil, said his country "pursues no claims on Iraqis' territory and resources."
Obama, an early critic of the war in Iraq, last visited Baghdad in July, at the height of the presidential campaign, during which he vowed to end the unpopular war quickly. Since taking office in January, he has taken a more cautious approach, saying the United States needs to leave Iraq carefully and responsibly.
The deteriorating situation in Afghanistan has in recent months eclipsed the conflict in Iraq, where U.S. casualties have declined sharply.
"Obviously, we've spent a lot of time trying to get Afghanistan right," the president said. "But I think it's important for us to remember that there's still a lot of work to be done here."
Sgt. Justin Roark, 24, of Little Rock, said Obama's visit was a morale booster for the troops, many of whom have endured multiple arduous deployments.
"President Obama's visit lets us know that he still has us on his agenda as one of his top priorities," said Roark, who is weeks away from leaving Iraq. "I understand that he wants to shift focus to Afghanistan, but this tells me that he hasn't forgotten about us."
Staff writer Michael D. Shear in Istanbul and special correspondents Qais Mizher and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad contributed to this report.