President Barack Obama made an unannounced visit to Iraq — his first as president — on Tuesday for a brief inspection of the war and to meet with Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in the country.
“It is time for us to transition to the Iraqis,” Obama told about 600 troops at Camp Victory, the main American military base in Iraq. “They need to take responsibility for their country.”
Obama’s visit came at the conclusion of a long overseas trip that included the Group of 20 nations economic summit in London, NATO summits in Europe and two days in Turkey.
Before leaving Turkey, the referred to 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.”
In office only 11 weeks, Obama has already announced plans to withdraw most U.S. combat troops on a 19-month timetable. The drawdown is to begin slowly, so American forces can provide security for Iraqi elections, then accelerate in 2010. As many as 50,000 troops are expected to remain in the country at the end of the 19 months to perform counterterrorism duties.
Tuesday’s trip was Obama’s third to Iraq. Obama met with U.S. commanders and troops last summer while running for office.
Because of security concerns, the White House made no prior announcement of the visit, and released no advance details for his activities on the ground.
Plans for a short helicopter ride to Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone were scrapped because of poor visibility, according to the Associated Press. The president will instead speak by phone with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and President Jalal Talabani instead of in person.
En route to Iraq, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama chose Iraq rather than Afghanistan for a war-zone visit in part because it was near Turkey and also because progress “lies in political solutions,” said the AP.
Iraq is the last stop of Obama’s eight-day trip to Europe and Turkey, where he placed his stamp on U.S. foreign policy after eight years of the Bush administration.
Obama and other world leaders pledged to combat a global recession. He drew large crowds as he offered repeated assurances that the U.S. would not seek to dictate to other countries.