Obama makes surprise stop in Iraqi capital

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Barack Obama made a surprise visit to Baghdad yesterday, signalling to cheering American troops that the exit was in sight after six years of war and declaring that the time had come for Iraqis to "take responsibility for their country".

Paying his first visit to the scene of the war he opposed as a senator but inherited from George Bush, President Obama spoke of political progress in Iraq. But the fragility of the security situation there was underlined by a car bombing in the capital just hours before Air Force One landed. Nine people were killed in the blast, which came 24 hours after six attacks killed 37.

Mr Obama initially spoke to Iraqi leaders by telephone from the US base near the airport, instead of meeting them face to face, because a journey by road was deemed too risky and poor visibility prevented helicopter trips. However, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki later visited him at Camp Victory for talks in a hastily arranged visit.

The Obama administration has declared that all combat troops will be withdrawn by August 2010 after a gradual drawdown from its current strength of 140,000. Talking to an audience of around 600 troops yesterday, the US President told them: "This is going to be a critical period, these next 18 months. 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 people home."

For US troops to keep to the timetable for the exit strategy the Iraqi leaders had to reach "equitable and fair" solutions to the problems which had beset the political process, Mr Obama said. "They are going to have to decide that they want to resolve their differences through constitutional means and legal means... It is important for us to use all our influence to encourage the parties to resolve these issues in ways which are equitable. I think that my presence here can help."

Iraq's provincial elections have passed off relatively peacefully, but there has been a recent increase in bombings and shootings and rising tension between Kurds and Iraqi Arabs over oilfields in the north. The ongoing violence in the country had meant that President Obama's visit was shrouded in secrecy, like those by his predecessor.

The broad consensus among Iraqi politicians and observers, however, was that the new US leader would receive a much more emollient reception than Mr Bush. "No flying shoes this time for sure," said political analyst Hazem al-Nuaimi. But although there was no-body flinging footwear at President Obama – unlike the black loafers lobbed at Mr Bush – ordinary Iraqis had scant chance of seeing him in person, like the crowds that have thronged to see him on the European leg of his world tour.