President Obama made a surprise visit to Baghdad on Tuesday, declaring it time for U.S. troops to start leaving and Iraqis to take complete charge of their country. Events illustrated just how difficult that may yet prove to be.
The number of violent incidents in Baghdad has been increasing: Six car bombs exploded in the capital the day before Obama’s visit, killing 36 people. Another detonated Tuesday before he arrived, killing nine more. The attacks all targeted Shiite Muslim neighborhoods, hinting at rising sectarian tensions.
Still, on his first visit to Iraq since becoming president, Obama focused on the positive.
“We should not be distracted, because we have made enormous progress working alongside the Iraqi government over the last few months,” he said. He maintained that overall violence was down and that there had been real movement on political issues.
Most U.S. forces are to withdraw from their bases in Iraqi cities this summer. Obama has pushed for all U.S. combat brigades to leave by August 2010. His plan would “ultimately result in the removal of all U.S. troops by 2011,” he said Tuesday.
Addressing hundreds of cheering U.S. soldiers just days before the anniversary of the 2003 fall of Baghdad and ouster of Saddam Hussein, Obama said, “It is time for us to transition to the Iraqis.
“They need to take responsibility for their country,” he told troops who greeted him at Al Faw Palace, a former Hussein residence in the Baghdad airport complex.
Obama campaigned for office on a pledge to end the war in Iraq, which has cost the lives of 4,266 U.S. military personnel and many thousands of Iraqis. Instead, he is seeking to focus U.S. attention on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama has banked on a reduction in U.S. forces in Iraq as he seeks to add 21,000 troops in Afghanistan.
But the Iraq mission is looking more complicated. Some Iraqi politicians fear that an era of relative peace has been squandered and that more violence is likely.
A buildup of U.S. troops in 2007 was credited with helping end civil war. The number of troops has dropped to 135,000 from more than 160,000 two years ago. In the last month, the number of violent incidents in Baghdad has grown, raising questions about whether the gains in stability will last.
The country remains fraught with sectarian and political tensions. Sunni Arab paramilitary fighters -- whose decision to ally with the U.S. and oppose the group Al Qaeda in Iraq was credited with helping calm the country -- are under pressure from the Shiite-led government.
The government has jailed some paramilitary leaders, and many fighters believe the Americans are not providing enough protection.
Last week, some of the fighters clashed with Iraqi and American security forces in Baghdad, and there is concern that they could now be recruited for the insurgency.
In northern Iraq, Kurdish-Arab tensions have increased, with U.S. soldiers often acting as informal peacekeepers. The country’s political arena has been roiled by resentment over Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s growing power.
Meanwhile, there is concern that U.S. policy is adrift. The last ambassador, Ryan Crocker, left in mid-February and the appointment of his successor, Christopher Hill, has been held up in the Senate. The cohesion of Iraqi security forces is still in question.
If the violence continues to rise, Obama could be accused of frittering away the progress achieved through President Bush’s “surge” strategy of the previous two years.
Obama was greeted at the start of his four-hour visit by the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. Ray Odierno, who whisked him from the airport in a black Suburban.
At Al Faw Palace, U.S. troops posed for pictures with the president and cheered him warmly, punctuating his remarks with their famous roar of approval: “Ooah!”
Obama had planned to fly by helicopter to the city’s Green Zone enclave to meet with Iraqi officials, but a dusty sky forced the scrapping of that idea, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters aboard Air Force One. The city was still considered too dangerous for Obama to travel in a vehicle convoy, and a U.S. president has yet to spend the night in Baghdad.
Officials said Odierno and Obama discussed such issues as integrating Sunnis into the Iraqi security forces and legislation dividing Iraq’s oil revenues, which is stalled. After meeting with Maliki at Odierno’s home, Obama said his heart went out to the victims of the recent attacks in Baghdad.
Shiite legislator Abbas Bayati, a political ally of the prime minister, told Al Arabiya television that Maliki and Obama had reviewed the U.S. military’s commitments to its Iraq exit dates and discussed the broader nature of the countries’ relationship.
Obama’s visit followed an eight-day trip to Europe and Turkey during which he appealed to allies for support in the NATO combat mission in Afghanistan.
Earlier in the day, before Obama’s arrival from Istanbul, Turkey, a car bomb exploded in the Shiite district of Kadhimiya, killing nine people. The blast followed six bombings Monday in the capital that killed 36 people. Survivors of Tuesday’s blast spoke of nervous Iraqi police beating civilians.
Obama’s visit was his first as president to a combat zone. It came after a week of summits and one-on-one meetings with world leaders as he unveiled a new U.S. foreign policy.
The president ended a midday town-hall meeting in Istanbul earlier than scheduled and headed to the airport for the unannounced trip. Before he finished speaking to college students there, Obama said that moving the “ship of state” would be a slow process, and he cited Iraq as an example.
“I opposed the war in Iraq,” he told them. “I thought it was a bad idea. Now that we’re there, 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.”
Following up on his call a day earlier for Turkey to respect the rights of religious minorities, Obama met with religious leaders, including the country’s chief rabbi, its Armenian and Greek Orthodox patriarchs and the Syrian Orthodox archbishop, along with Istanbul’s senior Islamic cleric, or grand mufti.
Times staff writers Saif Hameed in Baghdad and Laura King in Istanbul contributed to this report.