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Obama makes surprise visit to Iraq

ON a trip shrouded in secrecy, United States President Barack Obama flew into Iraq yesterday for a brief inspection of a war he opposed as a candidate and now vows to end as commander in chief.

His gleaming white and blue Air Force One touched down hours after a car bomb exploded in a Shiite neighborhood of the capital city, a deadly reminder of the violence that has claimed the lives at least 4,266 members of the US military and thousands more Iraqis since March 2003.

Obama's visit came at the conclusion of a long overseas trip that included economic and NATO summits in Europe and two days in Turkey.

Shortly before leaving Turkey, the president held out 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 US 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 US 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.

Yesterday's trip was Obama's third to Iraq, and his first since taking office. He met US commanders and troops last summer while seeking the presidency.

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.

Obama walked off his plane wearing a business suit, shook hands with General Ray Odierno, the top US commander in the country, then stepped into an SUV for a brief ride to Camp Victory, the main US military base in Iraq.

Plans for a short helicopter ride to Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone were scrapped, the White House citing poor visibility.

Officials said the president would speak by phone with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani rather than in person because of the change in plans.

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."

The commander in chief also was presenting combat medals to several US servicemen.


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