Clinton promises Iraqis they will not be abandoned

BAGHDAD — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised the people of war-torn Iraq on today that they would not be abandoned by the Obama administration as it begins to pull out U.S. troops.

Clinton flew to the country this morning on the heels of four suicide bombings in two days that killed more than 160 people. The violence signaled the difficulties that the Obama administration may face as it tries to shift troops from this country to the escalating war in Afghanistan.

“I wanted to come today to repeat the commitment that President Obama and I and our government have to the people and nation of Iraq,” Clinton said at a town hall-style meeting at the U.S. Embassy that was broadcast on Iraqi television.

“As we make this transition, the United States will stand with the people of Iraq,” she said.

Violence in Iraq has dropped dramatically since the worst days of the war, from an average of 180 attacks per day in June 2007 to 27 a day in January, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. But the death toll has spiked lately, with insurgents demonstrating that they are still able to obtain explosives and outwit Iraqi security forces.

Many attacks are believed to be carried out by Sunni insurgents, who recently announced a campaign of violence code-named “The Good Harvest.” They appear to be trying to destroy the credibility of the Shiite-led government.

The latest attacks occurred two months before U.S. forces are to withdraw from Iraqi cities under a treaty signed with Iraq in December. The Obama administration is planning to slash the troop presence here from about 140,000 to 50,000 or fewer by the summer of 2010.

Clinton played down the latest burst of violence, saying that she saw “no sign” it would re-ignite the sectarian warfare that ravaged the country in recent years. She said the Iraqi government had “come a long, long way” and that the bombings were “a signal that the rejectionists fear Iraq is going in the right direction.”

The trip was Clinton’s fourth to Iraq but her first as secretary of state. She met with Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, to discuss the security situation and with Iraqi government leaders, who had enjoyed a close relationship to the Bush administration.

In an effort to emphasize the new administration’s continued engagement with Iraq, Clinton brought along her top deputy, Jim Steinberg, who usually runs the department when she travels. She was also accompanied by the new U.S. ambassador, Christopher Hill.

Clinton arrived in Iraq this morning on a C-17 Air Force cargo plane, then entered the capital in a motorcade that sped past miles of sand-colored blast walls. Her visit was not announced in advance for security reasons.

Clinton described the highlight of her trip as the town hall-style at the embassy in the heavily guarded Green Zone, where more than 100 Iraqis — middle-aged businessmen in dark suits, women in headscarves and young men in jeans — packed a small auditorium. Clinton strolled the stage in a rose-colored jacket and black slacks, microphone in hand, responding to one Iraqi after another who pleaded for assistance for farmers, aid groups, released prisoners and others.

Several people told Clinton they feared that the U.S. commitment to the country would decline with the end of the Bush administration, the troop decrease and the economic crisis.

“It looks like, to us, that the situation of Iraq is not so important, or not in the same level of importance, for the new administration,” a human-rights activist said.

Clinton vigorously denied that, saying the troop withdrawal would be done in a “responsible and careful way” and that the U.S. government would increase its assistance for civilian projects, such as strengthening the justice system.

Another questioner, an Iraqi journalist, told Clinton that “frankly, some people are concerned” about the U.S. military drawdown. “There are so many people and so many citizens who don’t have enough faith and confidence in the Iraqi forces,” he said.

Clinton said the U.S. government would continue to work on building up Iraq’s police and military, which have roughly doubled in size in the past two years.

“But we need to be sure that all of you are supporting a strong, non-sectarian security force,” she said.

No one at the hour-long event expressed opposition to the U.S. presence in Iraq — possibly because they were selected by U.S. Embassy officials and employees. The crowd applauded Clinton, eagerly waved their hands to ask questions and laughed at her wit. But some later expressed disappointment.

“It doesn’t resolve any problems. She’s just talking,” said Shaimma Salman, 27, manager of a construction firm.

Iraqi politicians appeared relieved to hear Clinton’s promises of continued support. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said in a statement that Iraqis “are working seriously to bring the terrorism chapter to a close and move on to reconstruction and improving social services.”

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