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Middle East

Obama says next 18 months 'critical'

Text by FRANCE 24 (with wires)

Latest update : 2009-04-08

US President Barack Obama said on a surprise visit to Iraq that the next 18 months could be "critical" for the country. Obama met Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and promised that he would pull American troops out of the country as planned.

AFP - US President Barack Obama said on a surprise visit to Iraq on Tuesday that the next 18 months could be "critical," and told the war-torn country that it would soon have to look after itself.

Obama, who has called for an end to US combat operations in Iraq by August next year, also pledged he would stick to a timetable for all American troops to leave the country by the end of 2011.

"It is time for us to transfer (control) to the Iraqis," Obama told an audience of US troops soon after he flew in to Baghdad aboard Air Force One on his first trip since taking office three months ago.

"They need to take responsibility for their country," he said, noting that the next 18 months "could be critical" for the nation invaded by a US-led coalition in March 2003.

The US president's trip came just two days before the sixth anniversary of the toppling of Saddam Hussein and amid a spate of recent attacks that have killed dozens and wounded hundreds more.

Obama was immediately rushed off to meet General Ray Odierno, the top US army commander in Iraq at the start of his short trip, and met Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki at a US airbase outside Baghdad.

Obama was mobbed by ecstatic US soldiers during the previously unannounced visit, many of whom eagerly shook hands with the president and captured the moment on their digital cameras.

"You have given Iraq the opportunity to stand on its own as a democratic country. That is an extraordinary achievement, and for that you have the thanks of the American people," Obama told the troops.

As well as the planned US withdrawal, Obama and Odierno talked about diplomatic and political challenges, the need to build strong Iraqi institutions and the importance of future general elections.

Obama met Maliki at the US base Camp Victory, where he promised that he would pull American troops out of the country as planned, the Iraqi premier's office said.

The US president also met his Iraqi counterpart Jalal Talabani.

Obama, who opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq ordered by his predecessor George W. Bush, has used his debut overseas tour to reach out to the Islamic world and attempt to restore America's battered image abroad.

Although it was his first trip to Iraq as president, Obama visited the country last year when he was a candidate for the White House.

In February, Obama announced a new strategy that will see most combat troops withdraw from Iraq by August 2010, although a force of up to 50,000 will remain until the end of the following year.

A military accord signed between Baghdad and Washington in November requires all US troops to leave by the end of 2011.

Ending the war which sparked an insurgency that cost thousands of lives would mark a new era of US diplomacy including "principled and sustained engagement" with Iraq's neighbours Iran and Syria, Obama has said.

Violence has fallen dramatically since Sunni tribal leaders allied with US forces against Al-Qaeda extremists in late 2006 and as more American troops poured into Iraq under Bush's "surge" strategy.

But the past few weeks have witnessed a rise in violence.

A string of car bombings in mainly Shiite districts of Baghdad on Monday killed at least 34 people in what the US military said appeared to be coordinated attacks by Al-Qaeda, and another eight were killed in another attack in the capital before Obama's arrival on Tuesday.

Maliki blamed the attacks on Al-Qaeda and supporters of Saddam's now banned Baath party.

The attacks came about a week after deadly clashes in Baghdad between Iraqi troops and former Sunni insurgents now turned anti-Qaeda militants over the arrest of their leader on criminal charges.

The US military, however, ruled out the any involvement of disaffected Sahwa (Awakening) members, and also laid the blame on Al-Qaeda.

Bush was the last US president to visit Iraq in a trip overshadowed by an Iraqi journalist who hurled his shoes at him in protest at the invasion that toppled Saddam.

TV reporter Muntazer al-Zaidi gained global fame and was seen as hero in much of the Arab world for his farewell gesture to a deeply unpopular president.

He was jailed last month for three years by a Baghdad court, but the sentence was cut on Tuesday to one year by an appeals tribunal.

Date created : 2009-04-07