BAGHDAD, April 7 (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama has pushed Iraq's feuding factions to compromise during a surprise visit to that country, sounding a note of impatience as he said Iraqis should take responsibility for their country so U.S. troops could leave.
Obama flew to Baghdad to meet U.S. military commanders and Iraqi leaders and assess security there first-hand after announcing a strategy to wind down the unpopular six-year war by withdrawing all U.S. combat troops by the end of August 2010 and the rest of U.S. troops by the end of 2011.
"It is time for us to transition to the Iraqis. They need to take responsibility for their country...in order to do that they need to make political accommodations," Obama told some 1,500 troops at a base outside Baghdad.
His visit to Baghdad was shrouded in the security-conscious secrecy that marked similar trips by his predecessor George W. Bush, whose foreign policy legacy was defined by the unpopular war that he launched in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein.
In a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Obama acknowledged there had been political reforms but said more work was needed. Obama said after his talks with Maliki that there had been enormous progress on security and he was sticking with his plan to withdraw all U.S. troops by 2011.
He told reporters it was "absolutely critical for all Iraqis to be adequately integrated into the government and security forces, adding he wanted to work with Maliki in a "spirit of partnership."
Obama departed Iraq for Washington to wrap up an eight-day tour that took him through Britain
, Germany, France
, the Czech Republic
, and Turkey
before the unannounced Iraqi visit.
Iraq experts fear that if steps are not taken to resolve disputes between Sunni and Shi'ite Arab and Kurdish political blocs, recent security gains, partly won by a U.S. troop build-up in the last two years, could unravel, plunging Iraq back into violence.
Obama's visit was not publicized beforehand and was made known only after Air Force One, flying from Istanbul at the end of Obama's first major international tour, had touched down at Baghdad International Airport.
His arrival came a day after a string of seemingly coordinated bombings across the Iraqi capital killed 37 people. On April 7, a car bomb killed nine people and wounded 20 in the Shi'ite Kadhimiya district of northwest Baghdad, police said.
Under Obama's new Iraq war strategy, announced in February, the roughly 140,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq will be drawn down to between 35,000 and 50,000 -- a number that anti-war critics consider too high -- by the end of August 2010. The mission of those left will be redefined mostly to help train Iraqi forces. But they too must leave by the end of 2011.
"This is going to be a critical period, these next 18 months," Obama said. "You will be critical in terms of us being able to make sure Iraq is stable, that it is not a safe haven for terrorists, and we can start bringing our folks home," he told U.S. troops at Camp Victory, a major base near the airport.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, had told Obama that even with the recent spike in bombings, violence was at its lowest level since 2003.
But, underscoring the fragile security, U.S. officials ruled out any idea of Obama traveling by motorcade into Baghdad after bad weather forced the cancellation of a planned helicopter trip into the city to meet Iraqi leaders. Instead, Maliki went to Camp Victory for talks with Obama.
The sectarian warfare and insurgency unleashed by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion have receded sharply over the past year, but Iraqi security forces still face huge challenges as they take on policing and military operations from the United States.
Urging Iraq's political leaders to reach "equitable, fair" solutions, Obama said: "They're going to have to decide that they want to resolve their differences through constitutional means and legal means."
Iraq held its most peaceful elections since the invasion when a provincial ballot in January passed without a single major militant attack. But U.S. and Iraqi officials say tensions between rival factions are likely to rise as Iraq approaches a national election later in the year.
The unresolved fate of the city of Kirkuk, which sits on rich oil reserves and is claimed by minority Kurds as their ancestral capital, and growing tensions between Kurds in their semi-autonomous region in the north and Arabs in Baghdad could ignite Iraq's next big ethno-sectarian conflict even as bloodshed between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims begins to recede.
Maliki on April 7 urged foreign firms to return and invest in Iraq, saying the country was now more stable.
"Iraq now is based on increased security, for peace and stability, and looks forward to international companies .... participating and investing in the country," he said through a translator after his talks with Obama.
Unlike Bush, a Republican blamed by many Iraqis for the tens of thousands who died after the invasion even as some acknowledge their gratitude for the fall of Saddam, Obama would be welcomed by Iraqis, analysts said.
Obama, a Democratic U.S. senator before he became president, opposed the war from its start.
"No flying shoes this time for sure," said political analyst Hazem al-Nuaimi, referring to an Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at Bush, forcing him to duck, during the then-U.S. leader's final visit to Iraq in December.
On the streets of Baghdad, many Iraqis asked about the visit insisted Obama back his words with action.
"I hope he'll withdraw the U.S. troops.... We need action. If he speaks, he must act. If it's just talk, he can stay away," said Qableh Mahmoud, a Baghdad housewife.