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Unannounced and shielded by heavy security, President Barack Obama flew to Iraq on Tuesday for a brief inspection of a war he opposed as a candidate and now vows to end as commander in chief. "There is still a lot of work to do here," he declared.
Arriving not long after a deadly car bomb exploded across town, 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.
Obama walked off his plane after a trip from Turkey wearing a business suit, shook hands with Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in the country, then stepped into an SUV for a brief ride to Camp Victory, the main American military base in Iraq.
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."
His gleaming white and blue Air force One touched down a few hours after the car bombing, in a Shiite neighborhood of the capital city, punctuated a recent surge in violence in a war that has claimed the lives of at least 4,266 members of the U.S. military and many thousands more Iraqis since March 2003. Aides decided to scrap plans for a helicopter ride to the heavily fortified Green Zone a few miles away _ but attributed the decision to poor visibility rather than security concerns.
About an hour after arriving, Obama met with about 600 of the 139,000 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq. Aides said he was presenting combat medals to 10 of them.