Hillary Clinton has vowed in her first visit to Iraq since taking over as secretary of State that the United States will "stand with the people of Iraq" despite the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops.
During her whirlwind visit, Clinton met with Iraq's prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani, and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, as well as with the U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno.
Ahead of the trip, Clinton said Iraq had turned a corner despite a spike in violence that saw more than 150 people killed in two days.
The visit comes just weeks before U.S. troops are due to pull out of Iraqi cities.
Clinton said at a joint press conference with Zebari that the United States was committed to "an orderly transition of responsibility from the American military to Iraqi security forces."
Clinton also spoke with around 150 Iraqis -- including students, teachers, and women activists -- at a town-hall style event at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, where a number of people expressed concern over what might happen after U.S. forces leave.
"There is nothing more important than to have a united Iraq," Clinton said. "The more united Iraq is, the more you will trust the security services. The security services have to earn your trust but the people have to demand it."
Iraq's leaders have at times appeared paralyzed in the face of sectarian differences, and U.S. officials have repeatedly encouraged them to use the reduction in violence of the past year or so to make long-term political and institutional gains.
"We have failed to take advantage of the good opportunity provided by the relative calm to build up our security capabilities, and engaged instead in political squabbling," Iraqi lawmaker Mithal al-Alusi, a Sunni liberal secularist and head of the Iraqi Nation Party, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq. "So Iraq has become an open field for homegrown criminals, Al-Qaeda militants, gangs, political failure, and regional conflicts."
On April 24, two female suicide bombers blew themselves up at a revered Shi'ite shrine in the capital, killing 71 people and wounding scores more, many of them Iranian pilgrims. It was the single deadliest attack in Baghdad in a year.
The suicide attacks followed similar bombings that killed at least 80 people one day earlier.
Iraq's government ordered security to be tightened at major Shi'ite shrines across the country in response to the attacks, which primarily targeted Shi'ite worshippers.
Black banners bearing the names of the dead were hung on April 25 at the site of the previous day's attacks, and flowers were laid on the ground.
But en route to Iraq, Clinton said she saw no sign that the country was sliding back into sectarian bloodshed.
Speaking to reporters, she said the recent bombings were a sign that "rejectionists" were afraid Iraq was going in the right direction. She also said Iraqi society had wearied of the violence.
Most of the more than 150 people who died in the bombings were Iranian pilgrims.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed the United States for the situation in a statement read on state radio on April 25. Khamenei said U.S. forces "day after day" increase insecurity in Iraq.
Until recently, violence had fallen dramatically, particularly since groups of former Sunni insurgents joined forces with the United States against Al-Qaeda or its sympathizers.
But the past few weeks have witnessed an alarming rise in bombings and suicide attacks.
The increased violence comes as U.S. combat troops prepare to pull out of Iraqi cities by the end of June. That is in line with a timetable that will see a full U.S. withdrawal by the end of 2011.
"The prior administration agreed to withdraw our troops and we support that," Clinton told the embassy audience in Baghdad. " We want to do that in a responsible and careful way, and we also want to expand our work with the people and government of Iraq in other areas of concern, to help the government, to help the rule of law, to help the civil society."
She added that the United States remains "very committed" but that "the nature of our commitment may look somewhat different because we are going to be withdrawing our combat troops."
U.S. President Barack Obama visited Iraq two weeks ago and warned that the next 18 months in Iraq would be "critical."
The recent surge in attacks has fueled doubts about whether Iraqi police and soldiers can manage to secure the country.
Clinton said ahead of her Iraq visit that she would press the Iraqis with U.S. help to create a "nonsectarian security force that will not tolerate either sectarian actions or any kind of armed assault on the people of Iraq."
The trip was Clinton's fourth to Iraq but her first since becoming secretary of State in January.
compiled from news agency reports