BAGHDAD — In an unannounced visit to Iraq on Saturday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton downplayed concerns that the country's hard-won security gains may be deteriorating and said a recent spike in deadly attacks here won't derail U.S. plans for withdrawal.
The one-day visit, Clinton's first as secretary of state, came amid renewed fears that widespread violence is returning to Iraq. A string of suicide bombings killed at least 150 people here on Thursday and Friday. Attacks have been on the rise since March.
"These are tragic, terrible events, but they do not reflect any diversion from the security progress that has been made," Clinton contended during a joint press conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. "Reaction from the Iraqi people and from Iraqi leaders has been firm and united in rejecting violence."
Clinton flew to Iraq from Kuwait on Saturday morning aboard a C-17 military cargo jet. She was scheduled to return to Kuwait the same day.
Her visit included meetings with Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander here, and several Iraqi leaders, including Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, President Jalal Talabani and Vice President Tariq al Hashimi, the State Department said.
Accompanying Clinton for much of the day was Christopher Hill, the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq who arrived here Friday.
Clinton said that she and Odierno discussed the recent spate of attacks and that he agrees they should not change U.S. strategy in Iraq.
Zebari agreed that the violence is not an indication that Iraq's security gains are beginning to reverse. "I personally don't believe these deadly attacks will derail the government's plans to stabilize the country," he told reporters.
Besides sit-downs with top U.S. military and Iraqi leaders, Clinton's schedule included an hour-long "town hall" style meeting with roughly 200 Iraqis selected by American officials.
During the meeting, held under heavy security inside the new U.S. embassy here, Clinton vowed that America would not abandon Iraq and its struggle for peace. But she added that the time has come for Iraqis to take charge of their own destiny.
"Let me assure you and repeat what President Obama has said: We are committed to Iraq," Clinton said. "But the nature of our commitment may look somewhat different because we're going to be withdrawing our combat troops over the next few years."
Under an agreement signed last year between Washington and Baghdad, American troops must leave Iraqi cities by the end of June. President Barack Obama, who also visited Iraq this month, has pledged to withdraw most Americans from the country altogether by late 2010.
But the renewed violence has raised concern about what might happen here as the U.S. military shifts its focus to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
During the town hall meeting, one Iraqi asked Clinton whether the United States is convinced that Iraq's security forces are prepared to take over as Americans leave.
"Everybody knows that the U.S. intends to withdraw its forces from Iraq and frankly some people are afraid," he said. "There are so many people here who don't have trust and confidence in the Iraqi (security) forces."
Clinton responded that the U.S. forces will continue to train and support Iraq's army and national police. But she said the ultimate responsibility lies with Iraqis to "demand a strong, non-sectarian security force."
Sabah al Janabi, a civil engineer who was asked to attend the meeting, said afterward that he appreciated Clinton's willingness to engage with Iraqis, though he questioned whether it will translate into any tangible improvements.
"This shows the U.S. is interested in solving the problems of Iraq, but we need to see something practical," he said. "Mostly we have been disappointed so far."
Clinton also met briefly Saturday with Staffan de Mistura, who heads the U.N.'s mission in Iraq. She said they discussed a U.N. report issued this week that outlines possible solutions to Kurdish-Arab disputes over Iraq's internal boundaries, including a contentious disagreement over who should control Kirkuk, a northern Iraqi city estimated to be sitting on as much as 4 percent of the world's oil.
Clinton also attended a short meeting with a group of Iraqi war widows to discuss ways the U.S. and Iraqi governments can help ease their suffering, she said.
Speaking at the press conference with Zebari, Clinton said she was unaware of recent comments by Iran's top authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, blaming the United States for the recent deaths of scores of Iranian religious pilgrims in Iraq. At least 60 Iranians were killed in suicide bombings here Thursday and Friday.
Clinton called the ayatollah's comments "disappointing" and said that al Qaeda in Iraq and other extremists were clearly responsible for the deaths.
(Reilly reports for the Merced Sun-Star.)
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