BAGHDAD — President Barack Obama made an unscheduled visit to Iraq Tuesday, meeting commanders, troops and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki — and restated his commitment to remove U.S. troops by the end of 2011.
He landed in Baghdad after flying in secret from Istanbul, Turkey, a detour on his way home to Washington after a five-country, eight-day trip to the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the Czech Republic and Turkey.
In a quickly organized trip that was kept secret for security reasons until Air Force One landed, Obama met Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, and troops at Camp Victory.
"They keep you going," he said of the U.S. troops now under his command in a war he opposed. "They'll motivate you."
Because of security concerns and a helicopter grounded by bad weather, Obama never left the airport.
Meeting with troops, Obama thanked them for their sacrifice and saluted their successes. He visited Iraq last year as a presidential candidate.
"Under enormous strain and under enormous sacrifice, through controversy and difficulty and politics, you've kept your eyes focused on just doing your job," he said to cheers.
"And because of that, every mission that's been assigned, from getting rid of Saddam, to reducing violence, to stabilizing the country, to facilitating elections, you have given Iraq the opportunity to stand on its own as a democratic country. That is an extraordinary achievement, and for that you have the thanks of the American people."
He also reminded them that their work in the months ahead is critical as Iraq holds elections and he starts drawing down U.S. forces.
"This is going to be a critical period, these next 18 months," he said. "It is time for us to transition to the Iraqis. They need to take responsibility for their country and for their sovereignty."
He didn't mention his opposition to the war, something he'd cited hours earlier during a town hall with Turkish college students in Istanbul as a way of explaining how he differs from his predecessor, George W. Bush.
But the troops surely knew that, and they gave Obama an enthusiastic response. "We love you," one shouted out at one point. "I love you back," Obama responded.
"It gives everybody great pride knowing that he just took office, but he still stopped by to say a few words," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Floyd Robinson, 38, of Bessemer, Ala. "Soldiers need to see their commander in chief."
"It makes me feel like he actually cares to where he'd come out here and talk to us," said Army Spec. Joshua Tisdale, 24, of Pekin, Ill.
Obama's visit came on the heels of a deadly string of explosions in Iraq's capital this week, further signals that the dramatic drop in violence over the past year may be ending. At least seven bombs detonated in Baghdad Monday, killing several dozen people and wounding more than 130. Hours before Obama arrived, a suicide bomber killed at least eight people in the city's Kadhemiyah district. Early last month, a series of bombings killed several dozen Iraqis in a matter of days in Baghdad.
Arab and Kurdish tensions are rising in northern Iraq, with possible violent repercussions. And Sunni Muslim insurgents, who'd been put on the U.S. military payroll, and now are under the control of the mostly Shiite Iraqi government, staged a violent protest in Baghdad 10 days ago when a local leader was arrested on charges of past crimes.
After meeting Odierno, Obama said he wanted to keep an eye on Iraq even as he and the country shifts some focus back to Afghanistan.
"We've spent a lot of time trying to get Afghanistan right. But I think it's important for us to remember that there's still a lot of work to be done here," he said.
"We've made significant political progress. You've seen a greater willingness on the part of all the factions in Iraq to resolve their issues politically and through non-violent means. But with the national elections coming up, many of the unresolved issues may be brought to a head. And it's very important for us to use all of our influence to encourage parties to resolve these issues in ways that are equitable and fair. And I think that my presence here can help do that."
Appearing later with Maliki, Obama referred to the recent bombings.
"Our hearts go out to the victims of this senseless violence, as well as their families," he said. "But I remain convinced that our shared resolve and commitment to progress is greater than the obstacles that stand in our way.
He said he reminded Maliki that the U.S. will remove all troops by 2011, and that "we strongly support political steps to be taken to resolve differences between various factions within Iraq."
Maliki said he assured Obama "that all the progress that was made in the security area will continue so we will be able to continue our building effort, our progress in Iraq."
(Fadel reported from Baghdad, Thomma from Istanbul. Corinne Reilly of the Merced Sun-Star contributed to this article from Baghdad.)
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