“There is still a lot of work to do here,” he declared.
On an unannounced trip shrouded in secrecy, President Obama told the troops that the time to “transition to the Iraqis” has come.
The troops erupted in huge cheers as their commander in chief said Iraqis also need to take responsibility for their country, the Associated Press reported.
The U.S. military has been a presence in Iraq since leading the March 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
President Obama has pledged to end the war and bring home most troops by next summer.
He also says U.S. troops have given Iraq an opportunity to stand on its own as a democratic country. That, he said, is an extraordinary achievement.
“This is going to be a critical period, these next 18 months,” Mr. Obama said, referring to his August 2010 deadline for the withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops from Iraq.
“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 folks home,” he told troops at Camp Victory, the
sprawling U.S. military base on the outskirts of Baghdad, according to Reuters.
The White House said that the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, told the president that even with bombings this week in Iraq, the level of violence in the country is the lowest since the start of the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.
Arriving in Baghdad not long after a deadly car bomb exploded across town, Mr. Obama spoke favorably of political progress being made in Iraq but also expressed concern that recent gains could deteriorate with the upcoming national elections.
“It’s important for us to use all of our influence to encourage the parties to resolve these issues in ways that are equitable. I think that my presence here can help do that,” he said.
The president walked off his plane after a trip from Turkey wearing a business suit, shook hands with Odierno then stepped into an SUV for a brief ride to Camp Victory.
Under gray skies, the motorcade rolled past troops standing at attention. “It was wonderful to see the troops out there,” Obama said. “I’m so grateful, they put their heart and souls into it.”
About an hour after arriving, Obama met with about 600 of the 139,000 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq. Aides said he would present combat medals to 10 of them.
While U.S. casualties are down sharply from the war’s height, there were constant reminders of violence. A half-dozen bombs rocked Shiite neighborhoods on Monday, killing 37 people. There was no immediate death toll available from the car bomb incident that occurred a few hours before the president arrived.
The military is in the process of thinning out its presence ahead of a June 30 deadline, under a U.S.-Iraq agreement negotiated last year that requires all American combat troops to leave Iraq’s cities. As that process moves forward, the increase in bombings and other incidents is creating concern that extremists may be regrouping.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was traveling by motorcade to meet with Obama, a change from their planned get-together in the Green Zone, officials said.
En route to Iraq, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said President Obama chose this country rather than Afghanistan for a war-zone visit in part because it was near his last stop in Turkey and also because progress “lies in political solutions.”
“We spend a lot of time trying to get Afghanistan right, but I think it is important for people to know that there is still a lot of work to do here,” he said.
President 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.
Tuesday’s trip was Mr. Obama’s third to Iraq. He met with U.S. 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.
It was the last stop of an eight-day trip to Europe and Turkey during which Obama sought to place his stamp on U.S. foreign policy after eight years of the Bush administration.