July 22, 2008

Obama Visits Basra and Baghdad Iraq Trip is Senator’s First Since His White House Quest Began

By Alissa J. Rubin

Senator Barack Obama arrived in Iraq on Monday at a base in the southern city of Basra where he and two fellow U.S. senators met with U.S., British and Iraqi officials, according to Captain Chris McNair, a spokesman at the base.

The visit to Basra as part of a traveling U.S. delegation was the latest leg of a weeklong overseas trip by Obama, his first as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. It followed a stop in Afghanistan during the weekend. He later left Basra and was flying to Baghdad, the capital.

During the roughly two-hour visit to Basra, which McNair described as part of the delegation's fact-finding mission, Obama also met with U.S. and Iraqi soldiers.

The base, which is outside the city, has housed primarily British military personnel but now has nearly 1,000 U.S. troops as well, McNair said.

Obama was expected to spend the rest of Monday in Baghdad. His movements remained shrouded in secrecy, but Iraqi officials said he was scheduled to meet with Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, before the prime minister was to travel to Europe. He was also expected to meet with President Jalal Talabani.

Americans in Baghdad strictly warned Iraqi officials not to give details about Obama's visit. He was also scheduled to meet with U.S. soldiers, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.

Basra, Iraq's second largest city, was the site of the first of several recent military operations by the Iraqi Army that Maliki undertook to reduce the power of militias and insurgents in the country.

The offensive markedly reduced the hold of militias in the city and was the first major Iraqi Army offensive executed with only limited help from the U.S. military.

In Afghanistan on Sunday, Obama met with President Hamid Karzai for nearly two hours. During his stop in Kabul, the capital, Obama said the United States, NATO and Afghanistan must step up their efforts to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda and to encourage Pakistan to eliminate terrorist training camps.

"Our message to the Afghan government is this: We want a strong partnership based on 'more for more' - more resources from the United States and NATO, and more action from the Afghan government to improve the lives of the Afghan people," Obama said in a written statement, which was also signed by Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, and Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, both senators who are part of the traveling U.S. delegation.

Obama said in a television interview that the United States needed to send a stronger message to Pakistan about its efforts to fight terrorism along its border with Afghanistan.

"I think that the U.S. government provides an awful lot of aid to Pakistan, provides a lot of military support to Pakistan," Obama said on "Face the Nation" on CBS. "And to send a clear message to Pakistan that this is important, to them as well as to us, I think that message has not been sent."

In Iraq, controversy has reverberated between the United States and Iraqi governments over a weekend news report that Maliki had expressed support for Obama's proposal to withdraw U.S. combat troops within 16 months of January, which is when the next U.S. president will take office.

The reported comments came after President George W. Bush agreed on Friday to a "general time horizon" for pulling out troops from Iraq without a specific timeline.

Diplomats from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad spoke to Maliki's advisers on Saturday, a U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss what he called diplomatic communications.

After that, the government's spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, issued a statement casting doubt on the magazine's rendering of the interview.

The statement, which was distributed to media organizations by the U.S. military on Sunday, said Maliki's words had been "misunderstood and mistranslated," but it failed to cite specifics.

"Unfortunately, Der Spiegel was not accurate," Dabbagh said Sunday by telephone. "I have the recording of the voice of Mr. Maliki. We even listened to the translation."

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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