BAGHDAD (AFP) — Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama was in Iraq on Monday for talks with local leaders and US commanders, after vowing to pull out US troops in 16 months if he takes over the White House.
He went into a meeting with President Jalal Talabani and was also to meet Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and senior US military commanders, Iraqi and US officials said.
"Senator Barack Obama arrived in Iraq this morning as part of a Congressional delegation, along with Senators Jack Reed and Chuck Hagel," embassy spokesman Armand Cucciniello said.
"The senators have a busy day ahead of them, as they meet with senior Iraqi officials, coalition leadership and officials from the US embassy. They will also meet with constituent service members and civilian staff working in Iraq."
It was Obama's second trip to Iraq after a similar Congressional fact-finding tour in January 2006.
He had spent Sunday night in Kuwait after a visit to Kabul, where he pledged to downsize the number of US troops in Iraq and commit at least two more combat brigades to Afghanistan.
Obama's camp has said the aim of his tour is to make an on-the-ground assessment of the war in Iraq and to meet the country's leaders, whom he has criticised for not doing enough to rebuild their country.
"Iraq's leaders have failed to invest tens of billions of dollars in oil revenues in rebuilding their own country, and they have not reached the political accommodation that was the stated purpose of the (US troop) surge," Obama wrote on July 14 in The New York Times.
Obama also confirmed his pledge to declare an end to the Iraq war from the first day of his presidency starting next year if he wins in November elections, and to withdraw most US combat troops within 16 months.
Residents of Baghdad's Sadr City, the stronghold of anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, were sceptical of Obama's plans. "This proclamation is a mere political stunt," said Abu Ali, 43.
But Khalaf Marhoon, a Sunni Arab from Haweeja in the northern oil province of Kirkuk, said he felt that if Obama became the next president it would change "the face of the Iraq war."
Maliki and US President George W. Bush have agreed to include a "time-horizon" for the withdrawal of US forces in a security pact still being negotiated.
The Illinois senator, who voted against the March 2003 war to topple Saddam Hussein, was in Iraq at a time when violence has fallen to a four-year low -- partly on the back of the controversial troop "surge" which he had strongly opposed.
After more than five years at war, with more than 4,100 US troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis killed, Obama said on Sunday it was time to refocus US policy on the region which spawned the September 11 attacks in 2001.
"They have sanctuary here," he said of Al-Qaeda in an interview with CBS in Afghanistan, calling for at least two additional brigades, up to 10,000 troops, to be sent to Afghanistan.
"I think one of the biggest mistakes we've made strategically after 9/11 was to fail to finish the job here, focus our attention here. We got distracted by Iraq," he said.
On Monday, Republican presidential rival John McCain said the Baghdad visit would show Obama that he was wrong to oppose the troop surge.
"Senator Obama is going to get a chance for the first time to sit down with General David Petraeus and understand what the surge was all about, why it succeeded and why we are winning the war," he told NBC television.
McCain said the Democrat "used his opposition to the surge as a way of gaining the nomination of his party."
"I hope he will have a chance to admit that he badly misjudged the situation and he was wrong when he said that the surge wouldn't work. It has succeeded and we're winning the war," he said.
German weekly Der Spiegel said Maliki backed Obama's plan to withdraw US troops within 16 months of taking office, but Baghdad has denied the report.
Bush and key ally British Prime Minister Gordon Brown have consistently resisted calls to set a definite timetable for military withdrawals from Iraq.
On Tuesday, Obama was due to hold talks in Amman with King Abdullah II, who is seeking assurances that Washington will pursue its aim of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a Jordanian official said.
He is scheduled to travel on the same day to Israel before visits to Germany, France and Britain.