Obama sizes up Iraq situation at source

BAGHDAD - Barack Obama yesterday began his first on-the-ground inspection of Iraq since launching his bid for the White House - with US commanders ready to brief him on progress in a war he long opposed and Iraqi leaders wanting more details of his proposals for troop withdrawals.

BAGHDAD - Barack Obama yesterday began his first on-the-ground inspection of Iraq since launching his bid for the White House - with US commanders ready to brief him on progress in a war he long opposed and Iraqi leaders wanting more details of his proposals for troop withdrawals.

His planned stops in Baghdad - and other areas of the country - marked the second major leg of a war zone tour that opened in Afghanistan. The contrasts in tone and message were distinct.

Obama sees the battle against the resurgent Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan as America's most crucial fight and supports expanding troop strength to counter a sharp rise in attacks.

But Obama had stood against the Iraq invasion and now worries that an open-ended US combat mission will sap military resources and focus at a time when Iraq violence has dropped to its lowest level in four years.

The Illinois senator - travelling in a congressional delegation with senators Jack Reed, Democrat, Rhode Island, and Chuck Hagel, Republican, Nebraska - arrived in the country early yesterday.

Their first stop was Basra, according to a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to give details of the trip.

Basra is the centre for about 4000 British troops involved mostly in training Iraqi forces. An Iraqi-led offensive begun in March reclaimed control of most of the city from Shiite militias believed linked to Iran.

Obama's travel plans were kept secret, but he was expected for meetings yesterday in Baghdad, where the airport is located near the vast Camp Victory, a nerve centre for the US military in the palaces and gardens that were once part of Saddam Hussein's compound.

The meetings were expected to include the top US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and other military chiefs outlining the significant gains in recent months against both Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents, including al-Qaida in Iraq.

The White House and military leaders - and many residents of Baghdad - trace the momentum back to last year's build-up of more than 30000 US troops in and around Iraq's capital.

Obama's challenger, Senator John McCain, has tried to hammer Obama on his critical remarks before the so-called "surge". All five surge brigades have left Iraq, but there are still about 150000 US soldiers in Iraq.

Obama has endorsed removing US combat forces over a 16-month period, but has been less precise on the size and type of US military role needed in Iraq after an exit from the battlefield.

Iraqi leaders are expected to press Obama for more clarity on his long-term vision. Such discussions have added importance since Iraq and US negotiators appear stalled in efforts to reach a long-range pact to define future US military presence and obligations. - Sapa-AP

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