BAGHDAD — President Barack Obama arrived in Baghdad on an unannounced visit Tuesday, his first trip to Iraq since entering the White House, and declared it was time for Iraqis to take responsibility for their country and for American troops to begin standing down.
Iraqis "need to take responsibility for their own country," Obama told hundreds of cheering soldiers gathered in an ornate, marble palace near Saddam Hussein's former seat of power.
"You have given Iraq the opportunity to stand on its own as a democratic country. That is an extraordinary achievement," he told 600 troops, saluting their efforts during six years of fighting and losses.
"We love you," someone yelled from the crowd of men and women in uniform."I love you back," responded the president.
Obama met with top U.S. commanders as well as senior Iraqi leaders on a visit of a little more than four hours that was confined to Camp Victory, the largest U.S. military base in a war that began in 2003 and has cost the lives of 4,265 U.S. troops. Many thousands more Iraqis have perished.
Obama, who landed at the closely guarded Baghdad International Airport compound, said he expected Iraqi national elections within the next year to help resolve major political issues. He sought to play down the spate of bombings in Baghdad — seven over the past two days that killed nearly 50 people — that many fear could indicate an end to the relative calm of the past 1 1/2 years.
After meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at the home of the senior U.S. commander, Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, Obama said his heart went out to the victims of the recent attacks in Baghdad. But he added, "We should not be distracted because we have made enormous progress working alongside the Iraqi government over the last few months."
Obama maintained that overall violence was down and that there had been movement on political issues. He said his withdrawal plans would "ultimately result in the removal of all U.S. troops by 2011."
The stop followed an eight-day trip to Europe and Turkey during which the president appealed to allies for support in the NATO combat mission in Afghanistan.
Before he left Istanbul, Turkey, for Baghdad, Obama told a group of university students that even though he opposed the war in Iraq when it began, he has "a responsibility to make sure that as we bring troops out that we do so in a careful enough way that we don't see a complete collapse into violence."