BAGHDAD — Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama held talks with Iraqi leaders and senior U.S. commanders on Monday, after vowing to pull out U.S. troops in 16 months if he takes over the White House.
Obama met Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani in Baghdad, following a stopover in Basra, the country's second largest city, at the start of a two-day trip.
"Senator Barack Obama arrived in Iraq this morning as part of a Congressional delegation, along with Senators Jack Reed and Chuck Hagel," embassy spokesman Armand Cucciniello said.
In Basra, on his second trip to Iraq after a similar Congressional fact-finding tour in January 2006, Obama met Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin, the number two commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.
He spent Sunday night in Kuwait after a visit to Kabul, where he pledged to downsize the number of U.S. troops in Iraq and commit at least two more combat brigades to Afghanistan.
Obama's camp has said the aim of his Iraq tour is to make an on-the-ground assessment of the war and meet the country's leaders, whom he has criticised for not doing enough to rebuild their country.
"Iraq's leaders have failed to invest tens of billions of dollars in oil revenues in rebuilding their own country, and they have not reached the political accommodation that was the stated purpose of the (U.S. troop) surge," Obama wrote on July 14 in The New York Times.
Obama also confirmed his pledge to declare an end to the Iraq war from the first day of his presidency starting next year if he wins in November elections, and to withdraw most U.S. combat troops within 16 months.
Residents of Baghdad's Sadr City, the stronghold of anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, were sceptical of Obama's plans. "This proclamation is a mere political stunt," said Abu Ali, 43.
But Khalaf Marhoon, a Sunni Arab from Haweeja in the northern oil province of Kirkuk, said he felt that if Obama became the next president it would change "the face of the Iraq war."
Maliki and U.S. President George W. Bush have agreed to include a "time-horizon" for the withdrawal of U.S. forces in a security pact still being negotiated.
On Monday, the White House again insisted that the pact would not include a specific date for a troop withdrawal.
"What it will not do is have any sort date tied to combat troops, like how many American troops would be in Iraq at X date. That would not be included," spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters.
But the pact was expected to include an "aspirational date" for Iraqis to take over security for all of the war-torn country's 18 provinces.
Obama, who opposed the March 2003 war to topple Saddam Hussein, was in Iraq at a time when violence has fallen to a four-year low — partly on the back of the controversial troop "surge" which also he had strongly opposed.
After more than five years at war, with more than 4,100 U.S. troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis killed, Obama said on Sunday it was time to refocus U.S. policy on the region which spawned the September 11 attacks in 2001.
"They have sanctuary here," he said of Al-Qaeda in an interview with CBS in Afghanistan, calling for at least two additional brigades, up to 10,000 troops, to be sent to Afghanistan.
"I think one of the biggest mistakes we've made strategically after 9/11 was to fail to finish the job here, focus our attention here. We got distracted by Iraq," he said.
On Monday, Republican presidential rival John McCain said the Baghdad visit would show Obama that he was wrong to oppose the troop surge.
"Senator Obama is going to get a chance for the first time to sit down with General David Petraeus and understand what the surge was all about, why it succeeded and why we are winning the war," he told NBC television.
McCain said the Democrat "used his opposition to the surge as a way of gaining the nomination of his party."
"I hope he will have a chance to admit that he badly misjudged the situation and he was wrong when he said that the surge wouldn't work. It has succeeded and we're winning the war," he said.
On Tuesday, Obama was due to hold talks in Amman with King Abdullah II, who is seeking assurances that Washington will pursue its aim of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a Jordanian official said.
He is scheduled to travel on the same day to Israel before visits to Germany, France and Britain.