In Baghdad, Obama Presses Iraqi Leader to Unite Factions
By STEVEN LEE MYERS and HELENE COOPER | April 7, 2009
CAMP VICTORY, Iraq — President Obama made an unannounced trip to Iraq on Tuesday, his first visit as commander in chief to the site of one of the two wars he inherited and must now see through to an end.
President Obama spoke to American troops at Camp Victory, Iraq, on Tuesday. The president said that it was time for Iraqis “to take responsibility for their country and for their sovereignty.”
He returned to Washington early Wednesday, The Associated Press reported, landing at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland and then proceeding by helicopter to the White House.
In Baghdad, reiterating his pledge to end a war he opposed from the start, he told a cheering crowd of American troops that it was time for Iraqis “to take responsibility for their country and for their sovereignty.” Later, with a hint of impatience in his words, he urged Iraq’s leaders to unite the country’s deeply divided ethnic and sectarian factions and to incorporate them all into government and security forces.
“It is time for us to transition to the Iraqis,” Mr. Obama told hundreds of American troops jammed into Al Faw Palace, an imposing sandstone building in an artificial lake that once belonged to Saddam Hussein. The uniformed crowd greeted that remark specifically with rousing applause.
Since becoming president less than three months ago, Mr. Obama has moved swiftly to reshape the war in Iraq. He announced plans to withdraw all combat forces by August 2010, as he sought to shift the military’s focus to the troubled war in Afghanistan.
He chose to visit Iraq first, though. The White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said he did so because of Iraq’s proximity to Turkey, where he began his day; the need to urge the Iraqis to do more to seek political reconciliation; and a desire to support “our men and women who are in harm’s way, either in Iraq or Afghanistan.”
Mr. Obama’s visit punctuated a trip that took him from an economic summit meeting in London to a NATO gathering and finally to Turkey, where during a discussion with students on Tuesday he faced a probing question of whether his policies were not in substance more like those of his predecessor, George W. Bush, than he liked to acknowledge.
“I have a responsibility to make sure that as we bring troops out, that we do so in a careful enough way that we don’t see a complete collapse into violence,” he replied, discussing Iraq among other issues. He added: “Moving the ship of state is a slow process. States are like big tankers. They’re not like speedboats.”
Mr. Obama arrived here aboard Air Force One at 4:42 p.m. after a flight carried out in secrecy and with heightened security, which included the closing of the main road to Baghdad International Airport. His visit was not a total surprise, because it had been widely discussed here since he arrived in Turkey on Sunday.
A pall of dust hung over Baghdad, grounding the helicopters that were to take the president and his entourage into the city itself, where a news conference with Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki had been scheduled.
Mr. Obama instead met Mr. Maliki and several other senior officials in another palace near the airport before leaving Iraq, less than five hours after he arrived.
One of the Iraqis in the meeting, Saif Abdul Rahman, a senior adviser to Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, said in a telephone interview that Mr. Obama focused on building institutions in Iraq, including the army and security forces, that were free of the sectarian tensions that still haunt this country.
He said that Mr. Obama pledged to abide by American commitments to Iraq, including the timetable for withdrawing all troops by the end of 2011. Mr. Rahman said he welcomed the president’s attention to a conflict and a country that seemed to demand less as of late than Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“That he chose to come to Iraq — that the first visit in the Middle East of a sitting American president is Iraq — is an important message,” he said.
Mr. Obama arrived only hours after a car bomb exploded in Kadhimiya, a predominately Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad that includes one of Shiite Islam’s holiest shrines. At least eight people were killed and nearly two dozen were wounded. That attack was carried out a day after a series of six car bombings killed at least 33 people and wounded scores in and around Baghdad, one of the bloodiest days in Iraq this year.
Mr. Obama, appearing briefly with Mr. Maliki on Tuesday night, referred to what he called “this senseless violence,” expressing condolences to the victims’ families and adding, “I remain convinced that our shared resolve and commitment to progress is greater than the obstacles that stand in our way.”
Their appearance, held at Camp Victory, was a contrast to Mr. Bush’s last visit here in December, which was marred when an Iraqi journalist hurled his shoes at him during an appearance beside Mr. Maliki. By coincidence, an Iraqi appeals court on Tuesday reduced the sentence that the journalist, Muntader al-Zaidi, received last month to one year in prison, instead of three, his lawyer and a spokesman for Iraq’s Supreme Judicial Council said.
Mr. Obama’s plan to begin withdrawing the roughly 140,000 American troops in Iraq on a strict timetable that would leave 35,000 to 50,000 by August 2010 has faced wariness from commanders, who fear that the security improvements remain fragile and could still be reversed. The troops who greeted him, however, appeared to support him enthusiastically. So many filled the vast, chandeliered rotunda where he spoke that people were being turned away.
Mr. Obama praised the troops for their accomplishments in a war he did not, as a candidate and a senator, support. “You have given Iraq the opportunity to stand on its own as a democratic country,” he said. “That is an extraordinary achievement, and for that you have the thanks of the American people.”
His remarks with Mr. Maliki had a more cautionary tone. He emphasized the need for Iraq to do more to advance political reconciliation, to improve governance and basic services, and to create security.
“Overall violence continues to be down,” Mr. Obama said. “There has been movement on important political questions. But we have been reminded that there’s more work to do.”
Mr. Maliki responded that “dialogue should be the only way to resolve any issue, whether it was between the Iraqi security components, or in the region.”
Earlier Tuesday, in Istanbul, Mr. Obama called for Israelis and Palestinians to make the compromises necessary to reach a Middle East peace accord. During his meeting with students, Mr. Obama said he still believed that peace was possible but added pointedly, “What we need is political will and courage on the part of the leadership.”
His comments came a day after he publicly repudiated statements from Israel’s hawkish new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, that agreements reached at an American-sponsored peace conference in Annapolis, Md., in 2007 had “no validity.” Speaking before the Turkish Parliament on Monday, Mr. Obama said that Palestinian statehood was “a goal that the parties agreed to in the ‘road map’ and at Annapolis. That is a goal that I will actively pursue as president.”
Steven Lee Myers reported from Camp Victory, and Helene Cooper from Istanbul. Alissa J. Rubin and Rod Nordland contributed reporting from Baghdad.