By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 26, 2009
BAGHDAD, April 25 -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton promised the people of war-torn Iraq on Saturday that the Obama administration will not abandon them as it begins to pull out U.S. troops.
Clinton flew to the country Saturday morning on the heels of four suicide bombings in two days that killed more than 160 people. The violence signaled the difficulties the Obama administration may face as it tries to shift troops from Iraq to the escalating war in Afghanistan.
"I wanted to come today to repeat the commitment that President Obama and I and our government have to the people and nation of Iraq," Clinton said at a town hall-style meeting at the U.S. Embassy that was broadcast on Iraqi television.
"As we make this transition, the United States will stand with the people of Iraq," she said.
Violence in Iraq has dropped dramatically since the worst days of the war, from an average of 180 attacks daily in June 2007 to 27 a day in January, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. But the death toll has spiked lately, with insurgents demonstrating that they are still able to obtain explosives and outwit Iraqi security forces.
Many attacks are thought to have been carried out by Sunni insurgents, who recently announced a campaign of violence code-named Good Harvest. They appear to be trying to destroy the credibility of the Shiite-led government.
The latest attacks occurred two months before U.S. forces are to withdraw from Iraqi cities under a treaty signed with Iraq in December. The Obama administration is planning to slash the number of troops here from about 140,000 to 50,000 or fewer by the summer of 2010.
Clinton played down the latest burst of violence, telling reporters she saw "no sign" it would reignite the sectarian warfare that ravaged the country in recent years. She said that the Iraqi government had "come a long, long way" and that the bombings were "a signal that the rejectionists fear Iraq is going in the right direction."
The trip was Clinton's fourth to Iraq but her first as secretary of state. Her visit was not announced in advance for security reasons.
She met with Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, to discuss the security situation and with Iraqi government leaders, who enjoyed a close relationship with the Bush administration.
To emphasize the new administration's continued engagement with Iraq, Clinton brought along her top deputy, James B. Steinberg, who usually runs the department when she travels. The new U.S. ambassador, Christopher R. Hill, also accompanied her.
Clinton described the highlight of her trip as the town hall-style meeting at the embassy in the heavily guarded Green Zone, where more than 100 Iraqis -- middle-aged businessmen in dark suits, women in headscarves and young men in jeans -- packed a small auditorium. Clinton strolled the stage with microphone in hand, responding to one Iraqi after another who pleaded for assistance for farmers, aid groups, released prisoners and others.
Several people told Clinton they feared that the U.S. commitment to the country would decline with the troop decrease, the economic crisis and the recent transfer of power in the United States.
"It looks like, to us, that the situation of Iraq is not so important, or not in the same level of importance, for the new administration," a human rights activist said.
Clinton vigorously denied that, saying that the troop withdrawal will be done in a "responsible and careful way" and that the U.S. government will increase its assistance for civilian projects, such as strengthening the justice system.
Another questioner, an Iraqi journalist, told Clinton that "frankly, some people are concerned" about the U.S. military drawdown. "There are so many people and so many citizens who don't have enough faith and confidence in the Iraqi forces," he said.
Clinton said the U.S. government will continue to work on building up Iraq's police and military, which have roughly doubled in size in the past two years.
"But we need to be sure that all of you are supporting a strong, nonsectarian security force," she said.
No one at the hour-long event expressed opposition to the U.S. presence in Iraq -- possibly because they had been selected by U.S. Embassy employees. The audience members applauded Clinton, eagerly waved their hands to ask questions and laughed at her wit. But some later expressed disappointment.
"It doesn't resolve any problems. She's just talking," said Shaimma Salman, 27, manager of a construction firm.
Iraqi politicians appeared relieved to hear Clinton's promises of continued support. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said in a statement that Iraqis "are working seriously to bring the terrorism chapter to a close and move on to reconstruction and improving social services."
Special correspondents Zaid Sabah, K.I. Ibrahim and Aziz Alwan contributed to this report.