Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Obama making first visit to Iraq as president

President Obama made a surprise visit to Iraq Tuesday on his way home from his first trans-Atlantic trip, seeking to buck up U.S. troops still fighting an unpopular war begun by his predecessor.

Obama planned to speak with troops at Camp Victory near Baghdad's main airport, as well as Pentagon officials and Iraqi leaders, during his brief stop before returning to Washington. He was awarding medals to several troops.

Violence has subsided in Iraq since peaking in 2006-07 — unlike in Afghanistan, where U.S. and NATO troops are trying to beat back Taliban forces.

Obama's new Afghanistan strategy also calls for a stepped-up effort against al-Qaeda terrorists believed to be hiding across the border in Pakistan.

But there have been recent spates of violence in Iraq as well.

Obama flew into the country hours after a car bomb exploded in a Shiite neighborhood of the capital city, a deadly reminder of the violence that has claimed the lives at least 4,266 members of the U.S. military since March 2003.

On Monday, a series of car bombings killed dozens. There also have been suicide bombs and assassinations in recent months.

Obama visited Iraq as a candidate for president in July.

The visit came at the conclusion of a long overseas trip that included economic and NATO summits in Europe and two days in Turkey. Shortly before leaving Turkey, the president held out Iraq as an example of the change he seeks in policies inherited from former President George W. Bush.

"Moving the ship of state takes time," he told a group of students in Istanbul. He noted his long-standing opposition to the war, yet said, "Now that we're there," the U.S. troop withdrawal has to be done "in a careful enough way that we don't see a collapse into violence."

Because of security concerns, the White House made no advance announcement of the visit.

Plans to travel to the Green Zone — the heavily fortified U.S. nerve center in Baghdad — were scrapped because of bad weather. Instead, officials said the president would speak by phone with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talibani.

It was the last stop of an eight-day trip to Europe and Turkey during which Obama sought to place his stamp on U.S. foreign policy after eight years of the Bush administration.

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