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Obama Meets Top Iraqis, U.S. Military Officials

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The question of a timetable for U.S. troops in Iraq has been ever-present as Barack Obama visits there. Iraq is the second stop for Obama on a trip intended to bolster his foreign and defense policy credentials.

The Democratic presidential candidate met with Iraqi leaders, who have expressed support for Obama's plan to withdraw U.S. combat troops. The senator also met with U.S. military commanders.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Baghdad and filed this report.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Senator Barack Obama had a full schedule on his Iraq trip, just about all of it out of the public eye. In the southern port city of Basra, he met with Iraqi and foreign troops. Later in Baghdad, he met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani and other Iraqi leaders.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): Thank you so much.

NELSON: Here the senator greets Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi at his home in the fortified Green Zone, with reporters clamoring for a rare sound bite on this tour.

Sen. OBAMA: I have had a wonderful visit so far, and excellent conversations, and it's - but we have several more meetings over the next two days, and at that point I'll give you a general assessment of the work.

NELSON: For Senator Obama, this trip is about fact-finding rather than campaigning. His visit to Iraq, the second in two years, is technically part of a congressional delegation tour. Two other U.S. senators, who like Mr. Obama opposed the Iraq War, Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island, are traveling with him.

Nevertheless, the trip is clearly designed to play to voters back home. By first going to Afghanistan and now Iraq, Senator Obama is trying to show Americans that he is qualified to lead a nation immersed in two wars, and while he's avoiding stumping, the senator, in an interview with CBS over the weekend, minced no words about what he plans to do concerning America's wars if he's elected president.

Sen. OBAMA: There's starting to be a growing consensus that it's time for us to withdraw some of our combat troops out of Iraq, deploy them here in Afghanistan, and I think we have to seize that opportunity. Now's the time for us to do it.

NELSON: Afghans say they welcome additional attention by the United States. With a resurgent Taliban and an influx of foreign fighters across the border from Pakistan, they want more help, but most stress the help needs to be financial, not just troops; like Gul Agha Sherzai, the governor of eastern Nangarhar Province, who meet with Senator Obama Saturday.

Governor Gul Agha Sherzai (Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan): (Through translator) Mr. Obama told me that if he gets elected he will spare no effort to improve security and reconstruction in our country.

NELSON: Back in Hashimi's home in Baghdad's Green Zone, the Iraqi vice president was noncommittal on whether Senator Obama would be a president he could work with. Hashimi says the two men didn't discuss Senator Obama's proposal to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq in the first 16 months of his presidency if he's elected. He says all they agreed upon was that there should be a timetable.

Vice President TARIQ al-HASHIMI (Iraq): We agree on the principle, and I just raised important issues that we shouldn't just talk about for how long it is, in fact, to get American troops back to the United States. What about the security vacuum? What about upgrading the capacity and the potential of the Iraqi armed forces? We have to look on all these three requirements; then we will say how long it takes, in fact, whether 16 months or whether three years, whether one year.

NELSON: That message is likely to be repeated by American military commanders who meet with Senator Obama, that while security here is improving, it could end up being fleeting without proper American military support.

Other Iraqis who didn't get to meet Senator Obama were pessimistic about whether his visit would benefit their country.

Mr. SAMI al-ASKARI(ph) (Iraqi Parliamentarian): (Speaking foreign language)

NELSON: Like Sami al-Askari, a prominent Shiite lawmaker in the Iraqi parliament. He, like many Iraqis interviewed about Senator Obama's visit, say they don't see radical differences between him and Republican presidential candidate John McCain. He says that in the end, whoever is in the White House will only act in what he described as the American supreme interest. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.