/ 21 July 2008

Obama visits Iraq, focuses on war strategy

United States Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama flew into Baghdad on Monday, officials said, thrusting US strategy in Iraq and troop levels to the centre-stage of the November election race.

Obama has called for the removal of US combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office should he win the election. He visited Afghanistan over the weekend, the other big foreign policy challenge the next American president will face.

Obama has come under attack from Republican candidate John McCain for not making a recent visit to assess conditions in Iraq, where violence is at a four-year low. McCain has been to Iraq eight times while Obama’s only other trip was in 2006.

The US embassy said Obama, who is visiting Iraq as part of a US congressional delegation, would meet senior Iraqi officials and US military commanders.

Seeking to boost his foreign policy credentials, Obama will travel to other countries in the Middle East and also visit major powers in Europe this week.

Obama courted controversy on July 3 when he said he might ”refine” his views on withdrawing combat troops from Iraq within 16 months but later said his stance had been unchanged for more than a year and that he intended ”to end this war”.

McCain says a US troop build-up last year helped boost stability in Iraq and has criticised Democrats’ vows for a quick withdrawal as ”reckless”.

But with violence down dramatically, Baghdad has become increasingly assertive about its own security capabilities.

Indeed, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and President George Bush agreed late last week to set a ”time horizon” for reducing American forces in Iraq.

It was the closest the Bush administration has come to acknowledging the need for a timeframe for US troop cuts. Bush has long opposed deadlines for troop withdrawals.

Maliki earlier this month suggested setting a timetable for US troops to leave Iraq, although he had given no dates.

But the Iraqi government has denied Maliki told a German magazine in an interview released on Saturday that he backed Obama’s plan to withdraw combat troops within 16 months.

The government has said Maliki’s remarks to Der Spiegel were misunderstood and translated incorrectly.

In a speech last Tuesday, Obama said a ”single-minded” focus on Iraq was distracting the United States from other threats, and he promised to shift resources to fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Obama called the situation in Afghanistan ”precarious and urgent” on Sunday and said Washington should start planning to transfer more troops there from Iraq. – Reuters